Several lawsuits against Monsanto over the unauthorized release of the company’s biotech wheat have been consolidated into one case in Kansas.
Earlier this year, the USDA announced that glyphosate-tolerant “Roundup Ready” wheat had been discovered growing in an eastern Oregon field.
The variety was never deregulated by USDA for commercial production, leading Japan and South Korea to suspend imports of western white wheat. The countries eventually lifted the suspensions, but USDA’s investigation into the release continues.
The incident also gave rise to numerous lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging that the company failed to prevent the biotech crop from contaminating wheat supplies while conducting field tests.
The lawsuits, mostly filed by wheat farmers, claimed that the unauthorized release has hurt wheat prices and export markets. The cases seek class action status that would allow other growers to join the litigation.
A panel of federal judges has now decided to merge five lawsuits originally filed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Kansas into a consolidated case that will be heard by Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil in Kansas City.
Eleven other cases against Monsanto over biotech wheat may also be consolidated into the case unless the plaintiffs object.
The panel decided on Kansas as the appropriate forum because several cases originated there and because it’s relatively close to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., “where the majority of common evidence is likely to be located, including the witnesses and documents concerning Monsanto’s field testing of genetically engineered wheat.”
The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit group that filed one of the lawsuits, wanted the cases to be consolidated in Oregon or Washington, while Monsanto requested St. Louis.
The panel made a “Solomonic decision” in picking Kansas, said George Kimbrell, attorney for the group.
Court briefs and motions that have been submitted up until now in the individual cases will have to be refiled, but the consolidation will ultimately prevent duplicative efforts, he said.
“It’s a more effective use of judicial resources,” Kimbrell said.
Monsanto said it was also pleased with the consolidation decision, noting that the company continues to be confident that it properly followed protocols in ending the field testing program in 2005.
Motions filed by Monsanto in some cases prior to the consolidation order could offer a preview of the company’s upcoming legal strategy.
The firm called the cases a “feeding frenzy” of litigation that alleges “injuries that have not occurred and, by all indications, never will.”
Monsanto asked for the case to be dismissed because there’s no evidence the plaintiffs received a depressed price for wheat or had to pay for additional testing, storage or transportation.
“Plaintiffs rushed to file their lawsuit based on rank speculation that Roundup Ready wheat would be found in fields throughout the Northwest, and that markets would continue to reject Northwest wheat deliveries forever. None of that speculation has proven true,” Monsanto said in the document.