Partial Summary Judgment Granted in Genetically Modified Rice MDL

The judge overseeing the federal MDL involving genetically modified rice has granted partial summary judgment to the defendants, dismissing several claims, including a public nuisance allegation. In re: Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, No.4-md-1811 (E.D. Mo. 10/9/2009). 

This multi-district litigation relates to the claims of U.S. long-grain rice producers, and others in the rice business, who allege that certain defendants contaminated the U.S. rice supply with non-approved genetically modified strains of rice. The first of a series of bellwether trials will begin in November; this first trial involves Missouri farmer plaintiffs, and the court's Order rules on only the portions of the motions directed to the claims of the Missouri plaintiffs.

The Missouri plaintiffs are seeking damages under a variety of theories, including negligence,  public and private nuisance, negligence per se, and the North Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act. The plaintiffs are suing to recover allegedly lost income they claim resulted from the drop in market price for rice; following the announcement of the contamination in 2006, some rice companies around the world banned the importation of U.S. rice, which allegedly caused a dramatic drop in the U.S. market price for rice.

Judge Catherine Perry of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an opinion on a host of summary judgment  issues, most notably granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims under the North Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act and on plaintiffs’ claims for public nuisance and negligence per se.

Defendants asserted first that the economic loss doctrine bars all the common-law claims.  The economic loss doctrine bars recovery of purely pecuniary losses in certain tort cases if there is no personal injury or physical damage to property other than the property at issue in the case – usually an allegedly defective product in a products liability case. A plaintiff suing over damage to a product he contracted for is limited to his contract remedies. Many states have adopted the economic loss doctrine for products liability cases, and some states have applied the doctrine to other torts
as well. Here, however, the court found that the alleged damages were not to any property that was the subject of a contract, and the plaintiffs were not claiming damage to any property that is alleged to be defective. Rather, they claim market losses and damage to other property, including equipment, land, and rice. Because they alleged damage to other property, the doctrine does not
apply, concluded the MDL court.

Defendants fared better with plaintiffs' attempt to rely on the more pro-plaintiff North Carolina statute.  The court noted that plaintiffs are not suing based on contracts with Bayer, and although some of Bayer’s decision-making occurred in North Carolina, the claims of plaintiffs cannot be said to arise mainly from those North Carolina activities.  Although there was some conflicting authority, the court concluded that the better reasoned cases require an in-state injury to a plaintiff’s in-state business operations. In other words, the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act is intended to protect the North Carolina consumer.  Plaintiffs had not shown that their claims here had a sufficient effect on North Carolina business for them to benefit from this act intended to protect North Carolina commerce.

Third, in Missouri, a public nuisance is an offense against the public order and economy of the state that violates the public’s right to life, health, and the use of property, while, at the same time annoys, injures, endangers, renders insecure, interferes with, or obstructs the rights or property of the whole community, or neighborhood, or of any considerable number of persons. Bayer was able to show that, as matter of law, plaintiffs cannot recover for public nuisance. There is no evidence in the record showing the sort of public harm or negative effect on the entire community that public nuisance law was developed to remedy.

A private nuisance, on the other hand, is the unreasonable, unusual, or unnatural use of one’s property so that it substantially impairs the right of another to peacefully enjoy his property.  Plaintiffs’ private nuisance claim survived summary judgment because factual disputes remain regarding whether contamination of plaintiffs’ crops may interfere with their enjoyment of their land. The focus of a private nuisance claim, said the MDL court,  is on defendant’s unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s land.  A genuine issue of fact remains regarding whether plaintiffs can prove a private nuisance.

Defendants were entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs’ negligence per se claim, to the extent it relied on a violation of federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulations. This is because they are more in the nature of performance standards that do not provide a standard of
care.  So, for example, if a building code says a stair riser must be six inches tall, that is a precise directive that a builder can follow, and if someone is injured because the riser is taller or shorter, negligence per se might apply.  A building code that says the stair riser should be of a sufficient height not to be dangerous or so that a person will not fall could not provide a basis for a negligence per se claim because the question of what is reasonable was not answered by the building code regulations.

We will keep an eye on the first bellwether case for our readers.

Modified Rice MDL Court Proposes Settlement Master

The federal judge overseeing the MDL involving claims over allegedly mishandled genetically modified rice has appointed a special master to assist with settlement talks. In re Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, MDL No.1811.
 

The order comes as the parties prepare for the process of selecting the bellwether trials currently slated to begin in November, 2009. The parties are to select plaintiff claims from each of 5 affected states for the initial trial pool. The bellwether trial plan approach follows the court's denial of class certification.

The bulk of plaintiffs are long grain rice producers who allege that defendants developed and tested a genetically modified strain of rice that contaminated the U.S. commercial rice supply. When rice importers banned the importation of U.S. rice, prices dropped and plaintiffs sued. Defendants have argued that such damages are too legally remote and speculative to be recovered.

The court noted that it “is important that the parties continue to explore settlement while preparing the cases for trial or remand to the transferor districts.” Because the MDL court did not have time to address settlement in as an effective and timely manner as is needed, the court proposed appointment of Hon. Steven N. Limbaugh, Sr., who has recently retired from the bench, and is available and willing to serve as a settlement special master for this case.

The court is giving the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard, and the opportunity to suggest alternative candidates for appointment. If no party files objections by Nov. 20, any objections will be waived, and the court will enter an order appointing him as Special Master.