Citizens Can Sue Pesticide Makers for Damage

Decision by the Supreme Court requires a lower court that had dismissed the plaintiffs claims to rehear their arguments. Compiled by staff


Published on: Apr 29, 2005

The Supreme Court upheld the rights of citizens to sue for damages caused by pesticides, after Dow Chemical Company and the Bush Administration argued that the chemical industry should be shielded from such litigation. The Bush Administration filed a brief in support of Dow Chemical, arguing against the rights of citizens who are poisoned or damaged from pesticide use.

The case, Bates et al v. Dow AgroSciences LLC, involves Texas peanut farmers who argued that the Dow herbicide Strongarm (diclosulam) ruined their crops, but were prevented from suing after Dow successfully argued in a lower District court that registration of pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) insulates it from citizen suits, or preempts litigation.

The Supreme Court decision upholds the preeminence of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which remains the pre-eminent and long-standing federal statute governing the regulation of pesticides in the United States. The Court unanimously upheld the basic principle that FIFRA preempts any damages claims against a pesticide manufacturer, which would impose a labeling requirement different from those required by the U.S EPA. Equally important is the Court upheld the uniformity of labeling requirements.

Basically, the decision requires a lower court that had dismissed the plaintiffs claims to rehear their arguments even though some Justices suggested in opinions that the peanut farmers would fail again upon review and wrote: "If petitioners offer no evidence on remand that Dow erred in testing, design, or manufacture . . . these claims will fail on the merits."

Justice Breyer, in his concurring opinion, stressed that the U.S. EPA has the legal authority to promulgate rules and to determine the preemptive effect of those rules. Furthermore, he emphasized that a federal agency charged with administering a statute is "better able than are courts to determine" the extent of state tort liability in light of federal requirements. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, concluded that "to the extent EPA promulgates such regulations in the future they will necessarily affect the scope of preemption."

The court decision also reads, "The long history of tort litigation against manufacturers of poisonous substances adds force to the presumption against pre-emption, for Congress surely would have expressed its intention more clearly if it had meant to deprive injured parties of a long available form of compensation."

Jay Vroom, CropLife America president and CEO, says, "Looking ahead, we will further analyze this decision and consult with the states, federal regulators, congress, our members and farm customers – all of whom appear to be impacted by the decision – to develop other policy directions that will respond to the court ruling."