This story was updated at 3:12 p.m.
A federal jury in Kansas City, Kansas, awarded nearly $218 million to Kansas corn farmers after finding seed giant Syngenta AG was negligent when it introduced strains of genetically engineered corn seed into the marketplace that were not approved for import by the Chinese government.
The eight-member jury returned its $217,700,000 verdict after an 18-day-long trial, the first of eight certified class actions lawsuits against Syngenta brought in state court.
“We think the verdict shows that this jury wanted to send a very strong message to Syngenta,” says Patrick Stueve, a partner with Stueve Siegel Hanson, a Kansas City law firm representing farmer-plaintiffs in the case. That message, Stueve says, is that Syngenta should not put new genetically engineered seeds on the market until key export markets have approved them.
Switzerland-based Syngenta issued a statement saying it was disappointed with the verdict “because it will only serve to deny American farmers access to future technologies even when they are fully approved in the U.S.”
The case concerned Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera and Agrisure Duracade, corn seeds containing genetically engineered traits. Thousands of farmers sued the company after Chinese officials rejected grain shipments containing traces of the strains in 2013.
“The case is without merit and we will move forward with an appeal and continue to defend the rights of American farmers to access safe and effective U.S.-approved technologies,” Syngenta said.
China is a major importer of U.S. corn. Farmers claimed the loss of the Chinese market caused corn prices to plummet, resulting in total losses to them of more than $5 billion.
The jury awarded full compensatory damages, Stueve says, indicating jurors understood that “access to export markets is critical for farmers. It drives their prices higher.” The jury declined to award punitive damages.
Stueve says the judge is likely to rule soon on whether to group multiple state cases into one trial this winter or to let them proceed individually.
A separate but related case in Minnesota state court was set to begin in April but a mistrial was declared on the opening day and postponed until July 10.
Other class action cases in state court are pending in Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. Yet other lawsuits are waiting to be certified as class actions.
Dan Margolies is an editor at KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City.
Amy Mayer is a reporter with Harvest Public Media who is based in Ames, Iowa.