A group of Costa Rican fern growers received a multimillion-dollar award against DuPont Co. on Wednesday for damages to their crops caused by the fungicide Benlate.
A jury in Miami, Fla., returned the verdict against the Delaware-based chemical company on its fourth day of deliberations, agreeing with the plaintiffs that Benlate had damaged the ferns' underground stem systems, resulting in annual crop losses that continued for years.
Plaintiffs' attorney Don Russo said they relied on new scientific evidence suggesting that Benlate promotes excessive bacterial growth in plants it is used on, resulting in recurring losses in perennial crops such as leatherleaf ferns.
"It explains why the symptoms don't go away," Russo said.
DuPont spokesman Clif Webb said the company would appeal.
"We believe there were a number of significant errors in this case that prompt an immediate appeal by DuPont," DuPont senior vice president and general counsel Stacey Mobley said in a prepared statement. "We have a strong basis for appeal and are confident that we will gain a reversal as we have done in a number of other Benlate cases."
Russo said he plans to file a motion asking the court to award $150 million to the 27 fern growers to rehabilitate their farms and compensate them for lost profits.
"Our chances of getting an increased verdict are infinitely better than their getting the verdict that was given reversed," he said.
Wednesday's court award totaled almost $114 million, but was adjusted downward because of contributory negligence by the plaintiffs. Russo said the gross damages awarded by the jury ranged from about $750,000 for a three-acre farm to $15 million for a farm of about 200 acres.
DuPont officials said the adjusted award is between $50 million and $60 million.
Russo said there was little evidence presented to prove contributory negligence on the part of his clients, but that DuPont persuaded Judge Amy Steele Donner to allow for that finding on the jury forms.
"We fear that kind of thing happening," said Russo, who also is representing citrus growers in Florida and Costa Rica in Benlate litigation.
Russo also said evidence presented during the trial suggested that DuPont employees were told to "eliminate" records pertaining to Benlate.
"We don't know what we were missing," he said.
DuPont shares closed down 93 cents, or 2 percent, at $43.75 Wednesday in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
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