ANALYTICS: Paraquat, the New Roundup of Herbicide-Related Lawsuits?

The first lawsuit covered by Law Street regarding paraquat was filed in early December 2020. Since then lawsuits with similar allegations against Syngenta AG, Syngenta Crop Protection LLC, and Chevron USA alleging that paraquat-based herbicides caused Parkinson’s disease for farmers and individuals living by fields where the chemicals were sprayed have grown significantly, and could increase even more as the current lawsuits progress. 

Paraquat, as Syngenta describes on its website, is “a herbicide that has been an essential tool for farmers for more than 55 years.” The product is used to protect soy, corn, cotton, and other crops from invasive weeds, and reportedly also “helps reduce soil erosion, and protect soil health and the effects of climate change.” The company explained that it has taken steps to ensure that the product is safe, such as preventing ingestion and improving formulations. 

Recent product liability allegations against the company, however, claim that it should have done more to protect humans from the harms of paraquat, specifically alter the product to make it less toxic and harmful. According to multiple studies, exposure to paraquat has a strong correlation with Parkinson’s disease. The legal complaints claim, among other breaches of law, that Syngenta and other paraquat producers were neglectful, failed to warn of the potential harm, and violated implied warranties. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits are primarily individuals who were exposed to paraquat herbicides and have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, or families of these individuals. 

Recent Paraquat Litigation

In December and January, federal lawsuits filed involving Syngenta were more common than in previous months, but were not noticeably abnormal. In February and March, however, lawsuits against the company tripled to 15 lawsuits per month, and then the amount multiplied again reaching 82 lawsuits in April. Since then, the volume decreased in May. Docket Alarm analytics show that over the past three months, the company has received an average of 1.4 lawsuits per day. 

Gregory A. Cade, an attorney with Environmental Litigation Group P.C., talked to Law Street about this emerging trend in litigation. Cade is currently waiting to file complaints on behalf of his plaintiffs until there is a decision on current efforts to consolidate the lawsuits either in the Northern District of California, which, according to Docket Alarm analytics holds 48 of the 191 filings involving Syngenta since the beginning of 2019, or in the Southern District of Illinois, which holds 29 of the filings. 

To explain the recent spike in litigation, Cade cited that Roundup lawsuits are in the process of resolving, which could lead lawyers involved in Roundup litigation to move to another similar lawsuit type. He said that multiple lawyers believe that the path for paraquat litigation will be similar to that of Roundup. Although many Roundup lawsuits have settled, there are still more lawsuits currently in appellate courts and in the consolidated lawsuit a judge recently rejected a settlement agreement for future claimants

Although they may have responded in some individual lawsuits, Syngenta has not yet filed documents in the initial lawsuits previously covered by Law Street to contest the claims against it yet, however, lawyers have appeared for the company in some of the lawsuits and asked for an extension of time to answer. A lawsuit filed by the company on May 17 asked a Delaware state court to require insurance companies to pay for its legal costs addressing the litigation. 

A large percentage of these lawsuits are filed under the PACER case type 365, which relates to product liability claims. The following graph from Docket Alarm shows the volume of cases filed including Syngenta, compared to those filed with this case type. This is the most common case type for all of Syngenta’s cases, likely because of these paraquat lawsuits. The company has also been involved in lawsuits based on antitrust and agricultural claims. 

Syngenta and Chevron

Although Syngenta is the company Law Street Media used to develop most of the analytics in this article, as they are involved in essentially all of the paraquat lawsuits, there are multiple other companies which have been named as a defendant in one or more lawsuits.  Chevron specifically is included in a large percentage of the lawsuits as a defendant, likely because it was the one of the first producers of a paraquat-based product.  

Docket Alarm analytics for Chevron since the beginning of 2019 show a similar trend to Syngenta, because of the significant number of cases filed against both Syngenta and Chevron. 

Out of all of the lawsuits filed against Syngenta recently, 95 of those also named Chevron as a defendant according to Docket Alarm. The distribution of these lawsuits is similar to those of lawsuits filed against only Syngenta, further showing the overlap in lawsuits. 

Cade explained that these two companies will likely be named defendants in most of the cases, because they are easily identifiable or well known and are clearly connected to paraquat. There are, however, other smaller companies which produce paraquat-based herbicides.

Syngenta Crop Protection and Syngenta AG have each primarily been represented by Kirkland & Ellis, which stays true in the lawsuits filed during 2021. While  2021 lawsuits largely relate to paraquat, the company has also been involved in recent antitrust lawsuits against agrochemical companies. The defendant has also been represented in lawsuits filed this year by Donovan Rose Nester, Gordon & Rees, and Berkowitz Oliver. 

Chevron is also represented by a variety of law firms. The company has had eight different law firms represent it in lawsuits filed during the current year. Gordon & Rees, however, stands out because it first began representing the companies this year, and is involved in over 10 lawsuits already according to Docket Alarm analytics. 

How Will These Lawsuits Differ From Roundup

The main difference between paraquat and Roundup, which uses glyphosate as its active ingredient, is availability. Consumers can purchase Roundup from their local Walmart, Costco, or Home Depot, but paraquat-based herbicides are primarily available for farmers and purchasing the product requires a license, according to Cade, which will limit the amount of individuals able to  file claims. Despite this difference, Cade said he expects the litigation will be similarly intense and will not be resolved quickly. 

Because of the license requirement, paraquat lawsuits can be expected to require plaintiffs to prove that they would have had contact with or were exposed to the chemical, which is not as much of a concern in Roundup lawsuits where anyone has access to the product. 

What is next for paraquat litigation?

Cade explained that his firm has not yet filed many petitions regarding paraquat, although they have multiple clients and petitions ready to file, because they are waiting to see how attempts to consolidate the lawsuits play out so they will have more information about where the lawsuits will be heard before entering the matter. 

Although he is not actively involved in the consolidation debates, Cade said that he does think consolidation would be good for those he represents. “I typically think that’s a smarter way to do things  … it’s just a way of being a little more resourceful in dealing with a number of issues that may pop up and as you know from one court to another you may have all kinds of things happening out there so being able to see everything in one particular consolidated court system, MDL, makes plenty of sense to me, I’ve participated in them quite a bit so I think that makes perfect sense.”

The paraquat litigation is just beginning, since cases are not anywhere near settlement or resolution it is hard to predict what may be coming and what the analytics may look like a year from now.  Cade said he expects the lawsuits to continue growing. “I suspect you’re going to see a lot more, I think a hell of a lot more,” he told Law Street. 

At this point, it does not seem paraquat will be involved in other lawsuits besides those related to product liability from exposure, like environmental or preventative lawsuits, which have been seen in glyphosate and Roundup litigation. There are farmers and agricultural organizations pushing for paraquat’s continued use. Cade explained that the companies work hard to keep the product on the market and that it provides substantial value, despite his personal concerns about environmental impacts. He thinks litigation will focus on Parkinson’s Disease, where he said there are clear studies proving connections to paraquat.