A lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on October 6 claims that a Los Angeles woman developed Parkinson’s disease because she mixed, prepared and sprayed the popular herbicide paraquat from 2011 to 2019.
The lawsuit names Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC and Syngenta AG as defendants.
The complaint claims that the plaintiff used paraquat as instructed and intended by Syngenta, and that she developed Parkinson’s disease because paraquat entered her body through one or more of several ways:
- Through absorption or via penetrating the skin, epithelial tissues or mucous membranes
- Via the olfactory bulb
- Via the lungs
- Via ingestion after small droplets entered the mouth or nose and were then swallowed
The lawsuit seeks to recover financial compensation for the plaintiff in the form of:
- Compensatory or actual damages
- Pre- and post-judgment interest
- Exemplary and/or punitive damages
- Costs such as court costs, reasonably attorneys’ fees, and other expenses related to litigation
- Any additional relief deemed proper and just by the court
Paraquat And Its Use In The U.S.
Paraquat has been used in the U.S. since 1964. It is used to kill grasses and broadleaf weeds before pre-emergence or planting on over 100 plantation, vegetable, fruit and field crops, to dry or dessicate plants before harvest, and to control orchard weeds.
The herbicide is typically sprayed numerous times per year in the same areas, especially when it’s used in order to control weeds on farms with multiple crops or in orchards.
Paraquat is usually sold in a liquid concentrate form which is diluted with water prior to or after being loaded into a sprayer tank and being applied via a sprayer.
Paraquat typically has surfactants added to it which increase its ability to stay in contact with leaves, penetrate leaves’ surfaces, and enter plant cells.
Paraquat is usually applied with a tractor-drawn tank, a truck with a tank, an aircraft, a hand-held sprayer or a knapsack sprayer.
September 2020 data shows that an average of 8.5 million pounds of paraquat are applied every year in the U.S. to 15.8 million acres of land.
The complaint claims that when paraquat is used as directed or intended, or in a reasonably foreseeable way, it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat users will be exposed to it while it is being mixed and loaded into sprayer tanks, including via leaks, splashes or spills, and will also be exposed to it while spraying it or being around the spray.
The complaint also claims that it is reasonably foreseeable that paraquat can enter the human body, and that the surfactants typically added to paraquat increase its ability to stay in contact with skin and other tissues.
The complaint notes that paraquat is extremely toxic to plants and humans, and that it kills weeds and plants via oxidative stress. The complaint also claims that it is this oxidative stress that causes Parkinson’s disease in humans.
Paraquat And Its Links With Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brain disorder which is neurodegenerative in nature and affects the part of the central nervous system responsible for controlling our movement.
Around 60,000 Americans receive a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease every year, and around one million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease.
Parkinson’s symptoms can remain undetected for many years. Its primary symptoms include tremors, slowness in reflexes and movement, resistance to passive movement, stiffness, and impaired balance.
These primary symptoms can cause secondary symptoms such as shrinking handwriting, freezing gait, slurred speech, a mask-like expression, a quiet or monotonous voice, muscle spasms, stooped posture, drooling, excessive saliva, difficulty swallowing and impaired coordination.
Other symptoms can include constipation, an altered sense of smell, a loss of smell, sleep disturbances, depression and low blood pressure.
There is no treatment which can reverse or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s treatments can also become less effective over time and cause unwanted side effects.
The disease has no cure and its sufferers see a greater risk of serious infection, falling and blood clots.
One of the disease’s primary hallmarks is the death of dopamine-producing neurons in a section of the brain known as the substantia nigra pars compacta. The brain needs dopamine to control motor function.
When these neurons die, dopamine production is reduced, and these neurons don’t grow back after they die. When enough of the neurons die, dopamine production is reduced enough to produce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Dopamine-producing neurons are very susceptible to oxidative stress, which the complaint claims is created by paraquat.
The complaint claims that “redox properties” inherent in the chemical composition of paraquat create oxidative stress in plant and animal cells, claiming that paraquat goes through “redox cycling” when it is around oxygen, which there is a lot of in living cells.
Previous lawsuits have claimed that paraquat’s “redox properties” have been known by since since at least the 1930s, and that science has known that paraquat’s “redox cycling” creates oxidative stress which is toxic to humans since at least the 1960s.
Numerous scientific studies have linked paraquat exposure with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, including a 2009 study.
Scientists actually give animals paraquat to intentionally give them Parkinson’s-like symptoms which they can then study.
The complaint notes that a 2019 meta-analysis linked paraquat exposure with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
The complaint notes that paraquat has been banned in many locations, including Switzerland (the location of Syngenta AG’s headquarters), the European Union and China.
Complaint Seeks Damages Based On Multiple Causes Of Action
The complaint seeks to recover damages based on numerous causes of action, including:
Strict Products Liability: Design Defect and Failure to Warn
When companies are held strictly liable for damages in court, this means that negligence does not need to be proven in order to hold the companies liable. The concept of strict liability with regards to product liability was established in California by Greenman v Yuba Power Products, Inc.
Lucas v City of Visalia saw the court state that “California recognizes strict liability for three types of product defects – manufacturing defects, design defects, and warning defects (inadequate warnings or failure to warn).”
A product is considered to be defective by design if it is unreasonably dangerous when it is manufactured properly and used properly or in a reasonably foreseeable way.
A product is considered to have a warning defect when companies know or should know the product is dangerous but fail to warn about the danger. Burke v Almaden Vineyards, Inc. saw the court state that companies who fail to warn of danger under these circumstances are strictly liable for any damages caused by their products.
The complaint alleges that paraquat is defective by design because:
- The way it was packaged, formulated, manufactured and design makes it likely to be absorbed, ingested or inhaled into the bodies of those who use it or who are in areas where it is sprayed
- When it is inhaled, ingested or absorbed into peoples’ bodies, it is likely to contribute to or cause Parkinson’s disease
The complaint also alleges that paraquat is defective by design because its design’s inherent risk of danger outweighs the benefits of its design, considering:
- The amount of danger posed by the design
- The likelihood danger will occur
- How feasible alternative, safer designs are
- The cost of improved designs
- Any adverse consequences resulting from alternative designs
The complaint alleges that it was known or knowable to the defendants, due to generally accepted scientific knowledge, that:
- Paraquat is likely to be ingested, absorbed or inhaled into the bodies of its users or those in areas where paraquat is sprayed
- Paraquat is likely to cause Parkinson’s disease once it is absorbed, inhaled or ingested into the body
The complaint alleges that paraquat was in a defective condition when it was sold because:
- It wasn’t accompanied by usage directions making it unlikely to be absorbed, ingested or inhaled into the bodies of its users or those near where it is sprayed
- It didn’t contain a caution statement or warning which was adequate to protect people from Parkinson’s disease as a result of exposure to it
The complaint claims ordinary consumers wouldn’t recognize the risk of Parkinson’s disease linked with paraquat exposure, and that since the defendants failed to warn about this risk, the plaintiff ended up being exposed to paraquat, developing Parkinson’s disease as a result.
Negligence is failing in one’s duty to exercise ordinary care in order to prevent harm.
Negligent parties in California are liable for damages caused by their negligence under California Civil Code §1714.
The complaint alleges that the defendants were negligent by:
- Failing to design, make and package paraquat in a way that made it unlikely to be absorbed, ingested or inhaled into the bodies of its users or those in the area it’s sprayed
- Designing and making paraquat in a way that makes it likely to cause Parkinson’s disease
- Failing to adequately research and test how likely it is for paraquat to be inhaled, ingested or absorbed into the bodies of those who use it or those in areas it’s sprayed
- Failing to adequately research and test paraquat spray drift, including how likely it is to drift in the wind and how far it can drift
- Failing to adequately research and test how likely paraquat is to cause Parkinson’s disease
- Failing to provide instructions on how users and those near paraquat use can prevent paraquat from being absorbed, ingested or inhaled into their bodies
- Failing to warn that paraquat can cause Parkinson’s disease
The complaint also alleges negligence per se, noting that paraquat manufacturers violated California Code of Regulations, Pesticide Law (3 CCR §§ 6145 to 6392).
Breach of Implied Warranty of Merchantability
California Civil Jury Instructions instruct jurors that implied warranties of merchantability are breached when consumer goods do not have the quality that buyers would reasonably expect.
The complaint claims that paraquat products do not have the quality that buyers would reasonably expect because:
- They are likely to be inhaled, ingested or absorbed into the bodies of users or those near its spraying
- They are likely to cause Parkinson’s disease after being inhaled, ingested or absorbed
Violation of State Consumer Fraud Statutes
The complaint alleges that the defendants, by failing to warn about the increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease associated with paraquat, violated the California Unfair Practices Act.