A U.S. District Judge has extended deadlines regarding depositions and discovery regarding a group of non-bellwether cases which are part of the paraquat multi-district litigation (MDL) which has been consolidated in the Southern District of Illinois. The deadline extensions come months after other extensions pushed back the date of the first trial in the MDL to 2023. There are over 2,000 cases in the MDL and more cases are expected to be filed.
The recent extensions came just days before The Guardian published details about internal documents from paraquat manufacturer Syngenta and their predecessor company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Those documents contain evidence that Syngenta and ICI appear to have long been aware that their products containing paraquat may be very dangerous.
Deadlines Extended In Paraquat MDL
On October 14, U.S. District Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel issued a court order granting an extension of deadlines regarding the completion of depositions in a group of non-bellwether cases in the paraquat MDL. The cases are thought to represent typical paraquat cases which juries may see, and were selected to assist parties in the MDL with gauging the relative weaknesses and strengths of claims. The cases might be some of the first cases remanded to U.S. District Courts around the nation if the paraquat MDL fails to resolve.
The extension was regarding a group of 20 non-bellwether cases which were selected for limited discovery on August 17. These cases were given an original deadline of October 17 for the completion of depositions.
One of the cases ended up being dismissed with prejudice, and a substitute case was selected by the court on September 19.
Depositions have begun and all plaintiff fact sheets have been completed regarding the cases. However, more time is necessary for depositions to be completed in some of the cases.
For three of the plaintiffs, the original deadline of October 17 regarding the completion of depositions was preserved. For 14 of the plaintiffs, the deadline to complete depositions has been extended to November 16. For one of the plaintiffs, the deadline has been extended to October 31.
The defendants are seeking a deadline extension regarding one of the plaintiffs, who opposes this request, claiming enough records have been produced to let depositions move forward. Regarding this plaintiff, the court ordered the defendants to produce, by October 14, a list of records produced and a list of outstanding records, as well as an explanation as to why the outstanding records are necessary. The court ordered the plaintiff to then provide a response by October 17 as to if the records are sufficient, explaining why deposition should immediately proceed.
Regarding the substitute plaintiff, the deadline for the completion of deposition is November 18.
The extensions come after, in July, the date of the first trial in the paraquat MDL was pushed back until 2023. The court had originally anticipated that the first trial would occur in November 2022, but a July 17 court order from Judge Rosenstengel amended the discovery schedule, setting the deadline to February 6, 2023 for defendants to complete deposition of the plaintiffs’ rebuttal experts. The order stated that additional deadlines, such as deadlines regarding Daubert motions, would be set later on.
Internal Syngenta Documents Regarding Paraquat Exposed
Just days after Judge Rosenstengel extended deadlines in the paraquat MDL, The Guardian published details about internal Syngenta and ICI documents regarding paraquat.
Greenman v Yuba Power Products, Inc. established strict liability in California regarding product liability. Manufacturers who are or should be aware their products are unreasonably dangerous, yet fail to warn about the danger, are strictly liable in California for any damages caused by the products, according to Burke v. Almaden Vineyards, Inc.
The documents exposed by The Guardian article appear to contain evidence that Syngenta and ICI have known for a long time that their products which contain paraquat may be quite dangerous.
The article by The Guardian has alleged the following:
- Syngenta focused on influencing regulators, refuting external scientific research and protecting paraquat sales.
- Syngenta engaged in efforts to prevent a respected scientist from being named to an EPA advisory panel while actively attempting to prevent these efforts from being linked with them. The scientist had been, at the time, working to establish evidence linking Parkinson’s disease with paraquat exposure.
- ICI and Chevron Chemical scientists were aware as far back as the 1960s that evidence existed that paraquat accumulated in the brains of human beings.
- Syngenta’s internal research showed that brain tissue was adversely affected by paraquat, and this research had been withheld from regulators by Syngenta.
- Scientists with Syngenta were aware that evidence existed that paraquat could impair the central nervous system, causing Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as tremors in animals, and a 1975 Chevron communication mentioned “permanent CNS effects from paraquat.”
- In 1958, an ICI researcher stated that a chemical compound related to paraquat seemingly affected the central nervous system.
- In 1966, ICI scientists stated that when animals were exposed to paraquat, they developed a stiff gait or tremors, symptoms that are known to be symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
- Notes regarding a 1974 meeting involving Chevron mentioned increasing reports of paraquat having toxicological effects on applicators. Notes from a meeting that happened a month later mention a Chevron attorney saying that there was evidence paraquat may “cause industrial injury” and that lawsuits could be filed against Chevron seeking millions of dollars.
- Chevron and ICI had a meeting in 1975, and notes from the meeting mention that motor neuron lesions were found in an autopsy done on a paraquat poisoning victim.
- A December 1975 letter from an ICI scientist to a Chevron toxicologist noted “possible chronic effects, which you see causing legal problems.”
- ICI reviewed the autopsy of a farmworker in 1976 which noted a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease, that being “degenerative changes” regarding “cells of the substantia nigra.”
- A 1985 internal memo distributed to officials at Chevron noted that a Canadian study found “an extraordinarily high correlation” between Parkinson’s disease and the use of pesticides like paraquat, warning that paraquat could become a huge legal liability like asbestos.
- When evidence began to mount in the form of studies finding that paraquat exposure could be linked to Parkinson’s disease, Syngenta responded by having its scientists conduct similar studies. However, Syngenta ensured their scientists intentionally failed to measure paraquat levels in the brain. They did this, according to an internal Syngenta presentation, “since the detection of any [paraquat] in the brain (no matter how small) will not be perceived externally in a positive light.”
- In 2003, Syngenta conducted a study which involved giving paraquat to mice and measuring how many dopaminergic neurons were lost in the process. Syngenta’s scientists utilized a manual counting technique when conducting this study, and the study failed to find a statistically significant affect on dopaminergic neurons. This finding was publicized by Syngenta. However, a Syngenta scientist repeated this study while using a counting technique that was more accurate, and this time the impact on dopaminergic neurons was deemed to be statistically significant. Syngenta failed to publicize this finding. The loss of dopaminergic neurons can cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
- A deposition which involved a scientist for Syngenta revealed that while Syngenta had stated on its website that paraquat fails to readily cross the blood-brain barrier and fails to reach the section of the brain necessary to cause Parkinson’s symptoms, Syngenta actually knew these statements were false when they were posted to the website.
Lawsuits against paraquat manufacturers such as Syngenta and Chevron seek to recover damages based on the cause of action of strict liability – failure to warn. The new evidence brought to light by The Guardian article seems to bolster efforts to recover damages based on the accusation that the manufacturers knew or should have known paraquat could cause Parkinson’s disease but failed to warn about it.
The evidence in the internal documents that Syngenta appears to have actively tried to cover up links between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease may end up leading to punitive damages in paraquat lawsuits against the company.