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Pesticide's EPA Registration Did Not Prevent a Suit Under State Law

Supreme Court Affirms Right to Sue in State Court for Pesticide Injury

WASHINGTON, DC -- May 27, 2005 -- The Supreme Court has upheld the right to sue pesticide manufacturers under state law for damages caused by their products. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) did not automatically override or pre-empt Texas law relating to pesticide safety and effectiveness.

Texas peanut growers sued Dow, the maker of the pesticide Strongarm, in state court because the weed-killer damaged their crops. A lower District Court agreed with Dow that registration of pesticides with the Environmental Protection Agency meant that the company could not be sued under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act. Instead, Texas state law was pre-empted by FIFRA, the lower court said. The Bush Administration sided with Dow.

The Supreme Court disagreed in Bates et al v. Dow AgroSciences LLC. "The long history of tort litigation against manufacturers of poisonous substances adds force to the presumption against preemption, 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," the High Court said. "...this history emphasizes the importance of providing an incentive to manufacturers to use the utmost care in distributing inherently dangerous items." Claims for defective design, defective manufacture, negligent testing, and breach of warranty were not necessarily pre-empted by the federal statute.

The High Court also commented that although a state labeling requirement must be equal to its federal counterpart to avoid preemption, the state law need not explicitly incorporate the FIFRA standard. States my review pesticide labels to ensure that they meet both federal and state labeling requirements.

The Court criticized both Dow and the Bush Administration. "Dow and the United States exaggerate the disruptive effects of using common-law suits to enforce the prohibition on misbranding. FIFRA has prohibited inaccurate representations and inadequate warnings since its enactment in 1947, while tort suits alleging failure-to-warn claims were common well before that date and continued beyond the 1972 amendments. We have been pointed to no evidence that such tort suits led to a 'crazy-quilt' of FIFRA standards or otherwise created any real hardship for manufacturers or for EPA."

A broad coalition of environmental and consumer groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the plaintiffs against Dow. The list includes Beyond Pesticides, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, Farmworker Justice Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

According to Beyond Pesticides, the Supreme Court decision is important because the registration of pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency does not take into account all safety concerns (Press Release, April 28, 2005). The group said that the potential for court review of pesticide injury cases creates a strong incentive for the development of safer products.

Brayton Purcell has been handling cases concerning toxic substances and unsafe products for over 20 years. If you have been injured due to an unsafe product, please feel free to contact us to learn more about your legal options.

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