A lawsuit filed on November 15 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois alleges that a Louisiana sugar cane farmer developed Parkinson’s disease because of his years of exposure to the popular herbicide paraquat.
The lawsuit names Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC, Syngenta AG and Chevron U.S.A. as defendants.
The lawsuit is one of more than 2,000 paraquat lawsuits which have been filed against Chevron and Syngenta in federal court. These lawsuits, like the Louisiana sugar cane farmer’s lawsuit, all accuse manufacturers of products that contain paraquat of failing to warn the public that paraquat exposure can increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
These paraquat lawsuits filed in federal court have been consolidated into a multi-district litigation which U.S. District Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel is overseeing in the Southern District of Illinois.
The Plaintiff’s Exposure To Paraquat
The plaintiff, according to the complaint, was repeatedly exposed to paraquat while working as a farmer and handyman from 1970 to 1993. The complaint alleges the plaintiff was exposed to paraquat via inhalation, ingestion and absorption while the herbicide was sprayed, applied, loaded and mixed, and while spraying equipment was cleaned. The complaint also alleges the plaintiff was exposed to paraquat due to spray drift, which is where the wind carries droplets of paraquat to areas it was not sprayed, and via contacting plants which had been sprayed.
The complaint claims the plaintiff routinely applied and used the herbicide while working as a farmer, and was also repeatedly exposed to the herbicide while transporting sugar cane.
The plaintiff was never told by a doctor or anyone else that paraquat could cause Parkinson’s disease, according to the complaint.
Use Of Paraquat
Paraquat has been used since 1964 in the United States for numerous purposes, according to the complaint, including:
- Killing grasses and broadleaf weeds before over 100 crops emerge or are planted
- Controlling orchard weeds
- Controlling weeds and vegetation near railroad tracks
- Controlling weeds and vegetation under power lines
- Desiccating plants prior to harvest
Paraquat is typically used many times per year on the same property, according to the complaint, and is typically sold as a concentrated liquid which is diluted with water, then sprayed from a tank onto weeds.
The complaint claims that paraquat products are usually formulated with surfactants which increase the herbicide’s ability to keep in contact with leaves, penetrate leaves’ surfaces, and enter into the cells of plants. The complaint also claims that paraquat instructions usually tell users to add surfactants, or crop oil containing surfactants, to the herbicide before using it.
Paraquat, according to the lawsuit, is usually applied via a knapsack sprayer, aircraft, hand-held sprayer, tractor-drawn tank, a truck with a tank or a train.
Lawsuit Alleges Paraquat Exposure Is Reasonably Foreseeable
The lawsuit alleges that it is reasonably foreseeable that those who use paraquat, as well as those nearby where it is being used, will be exposed to the herbicide due to leaks, splashes, spills, spray drift and via contacting plants that have been sprayed with it. The lawsuit alleges that leaks, splashes and spills are reasonably foreseeable while paraquat equipment is loaded with paraquat, cleaned or emptied, as well as while paraquat is mixed.
The complaint alleges that it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat can enter the human body via:
- Penetration of or absorption through the skin, epithelial tissues and mucous membranes, such as trachea, nasal, nose and mouth tissues, especially when tissue damage such as cuts and abrasions are present
- Inhalation into the lungs
- Ingestion after small droplets enter the nose or mouth
The complaint claims it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat, once ingested, can end up in the enteric nervous system.
The lawsuit claims it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat, once it enters the body through any means, can end up in the bloodstream, and then the brain. The lawsuit also claims it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat that enters the nose can end up in the brain via the olfactory bulb.
The complaint claims that the surfactants in paraquat products increase the herbicide’s toxicity in humans by increasing its ability to keep in contact with and penetrate tissue.
Parkinson’s Disease And Its Connection To Paraquat
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease which mostly affects the motor system, the part of the brain that controls our movement.
Parkinson’s disease has four primary motor symptoms:
- Tremor (shaking)
- Bradykinesia (slow movements and reflexes)
- Rigidity (stiffness)
- Postural instability (poor balance)
These primary motor symptoms can lead to secondary motor symptoms, such as:
- Shrinking handwriting
- Freezing of gait
- Slurred, quiet, monotonous voice
- Mask-like expression
- Muscle spasms
- Stooped posture
- Difficulty swallowing
- Impaired coordination
- Excess drooling and saliva
The disease can also cause non-motor symptoms such as:
- Altered sense of smell
- Loss of smell
- Sleep disturbances
- Low blood pressure upon standing up
No cure currently exists for Parkinson’s disease, and treatments cannot reverse, stop or slow its progression. Treatments for the motor symptoms of the disease usually become less effective over time, and can cause unwanted side effects as they are used longer.
One of the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease is the death of dopaminergic neurons in the brain, which are nerve cells that produce dopamine. Our brains need dopamine for motor control. These neurons do not grow back when they die. So, when too many dopaminergic neurons die, dopamine production is reduced, leading to the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
One thing that tends to kill dopaminergic neurons is known as oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between reactive oxygen species and our body’s ability to deal with reactive oxygen species and the damage they cause.
Paraquat, according to the complaint, kills the plants it is intended to kill by creating oxidative stress in plant cells. It does this because of what the complaint calls “redox properties.” Paraquat, according to the complaint, readily goes through “redox cycling” when it is around molecular oxygen, of which there is a lot of in living cells.
This “redox cycling,” according to the complaint, leads to the creation of a reactive oxygen species called superoxide radical.
The end result of this, according to the complaint, is oxidative stress which leads to the death of dopaminergic neurons in the brain. Paraquat, according to the lawsuit, can trigger indefinite redox cycling in the brain once it reaches the brain, leading to endless oxidative stress and the endless killing of dopaminergic neurons.
“A single molecule of paraquat can trigger the production of countless molecules of destructive superoxide radical,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint notes that scientists actually give laboratory animals paraquat on purpose in order to give the animals the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease so the scientists can then study the symptoms.
The complaint notes that “hundreds” of animal studies and in vitro studies have confirmed that paraquat kills dopaminergic neurons via the creation of oxidative stress.
The complaint also notes that numerous epidemiological studies have linked paraquat exposure to Parkinson’s disease in humans. A 2009 study found that paraquat exposure was associated with a twofold increase in the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and a 2019 meta-analysis discovered “a statistically significant association” between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease.
Lawsuit Accuses Defendants Of Failure To Warn, Fraudulent Concealment
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that paraquat could cause Parkinson’s disease, yet not only failed to warn the public about this risk, but actually actively concealed this risk. The complaint claims that the defendants knew about scientific studies linking Parkinson’s disease with paraquat, but fraudulently and actively concealed this data from the public.
The complaint accuses Syngenta of making statements that disregarded the dangers of paraquat and proclaimed the safety of the herbicide in order to mislead the public and the agricultural community. The complaint notes that, to this day, Syngenta disavows any link between Parkinson’s disease and paraquat.
Lawsuit Seeks Damages Based On Multiple Causes Of Action
The lawsuit seeks to recover damages based on numerous causes of action, including:
Strict Product Liability – Design Defect
The complaint argues that paraquat is unreasonably dangerous when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable way, and that this makes it defective by design. The complaint argues that paraquat is defective by design because:
- It is likely to be absorbed, ingested or inhaled into the bodies of those who use it or are nearby where it is used
- It is likely to cause Parkinson’s disease once it enters the bodies of those exposed to it
Companies are strictly liable for injuries caused by design defects in California, meaning negligence need not be proven for liability to be established; see Lucas v City of Visalia.
Strict Product Liability – Failure to Warn
The complaint alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that paraquat was likely to enter the bodies of those who used it or were near where it was being used, and that, once it entered their bodies, paraquat was likely to cause Parkinson’s disease.
Despite this, the defendants, according to the complaint, failed to:
- Provide directions for use which would cause it to be unlikely that users and those nearby would ingest, inhale or absorb paraquat into their bodies
- Provide a warning that paraquat was likely to cause Parkinson’s disease once it was absorbed, inhaled or ingested into the body
Companies who fail to warn about dangers associated with their products when they know or should know about the dangers are strictly liable in California for any injuries caused by the products; see Burke v Almaden Vineyards, Inc.
Negligence is the failure to act with reasonable care in order to prevent harm. California Civil Code 1714 holds negligent parties financially liable for injuries caused by their negligence.
The complaint alleges the defendants were negligent by:
- Formulating, manufacturing, designing and packaging paraquat in a manner which made it likely to enter the bodies of its users and those nearby its use
- Formulating, manufacturing and designing paraquat in a manner which made it likely to cause Parkinson’s disease once it entered the human body
- Failing to adequately test paraquat to determine how likely it was that it would enter the bodies of its users and those nearby its use
- Failing to adequately test the likelihood and mechanics of paraquat spray drift
- Failing to adequately test the likelihood that paraquat would cause Parkinson’s disease once entering the human body
- Failing to provide instructions making it unlikely that paraquat would enter the bodies of its users or those nearby its use
- Failing to warn that exposure to paraquat is likely to cause Parkinson’s disease
Breach Of Express And Implied Warranty Of Merchantability
The complaint accuses the defendants of breaching express and implied warranties of merchantability. The complaint alleges that paraquat products are not of merchantable quality because they are likely to enter the bodies of users and those nearby paraquat use, and, once paraquat enters the body, it is likely to cause Parkinson’s disease.
Jurors in California are instructed that an implied warranty of merchantability is breached when products fail to possess the quality reasonably expected by buyers.