US peach farmer awarded $265m damages from Bayer and BASF

Jury finds Monsanto herbicide dicamba drifted on to crops and reduced yield

Chemicals companies Bayer and BASF must pay $250 million in punitive damages over damage their dicamba weedkiller did to a Missouri farmer's peach orchards, in the first case over the herbicide to be decided by a jury.

After ruling on Friday that the companies product did $15 million in damage to Bill Bader's peach farm, jurors in federal court in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, followed up on Saturday by imposing the punitive damages over the companies' mishandling of the weed killer.

The verdict is the latest litigation hit for Bayer, which is also seeking to settle thousands of lawsuits that claiming exposure to its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer. The company faces more than 140 dicamba suits, with farmers from Arkansas to Illinois seeking compensation for ruined crops including corn, cotton and soybeans.

Jurors on Friday found that the two German companies were responsible for Mr Bader’s losses caused by dicamba that drifted from neighbouring cotton fields over a three-year period starting in 2015. Mr Bader, the state’s largest peach producer, had sought about $21 million in damages for years of reduced yields he blamed on the herbicide.


Herbicide build-up

The dicamba build-up left Mr Bader's trees "in terrible shape", the farmer testified during the three-week trial. He refused to use dicamba on any crops grown on his 1,000-acre southeastern Missouri farm. The product is made by Monsanto, which Bayer acquired in 2018.

In Friday’s verdict, jurors concluded Monsanto and BASF negligently handled and marketed the weedkiller and acted together in a conspiracy to promote planting of dicamba crops. It’s unclear how the award will be split between Bayer and BASF.

Mr Bader’s lawyers argued the company used the herbicide’s tendency to drift as a marketing opportunity to urge farmers to plant dicamba-resistant crops to avoid damage.

Donna Jakubowski, a US-based spokeswoman for BASF, didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment on the punitive damage award. Bayer officials said they were disappointed by the jury's finding and would appeal the ruling.

"We believe the evidence presented at trial demonstrated that Monsanto's products were not responsible for the losses sought in this lawsuit and we look forward to appealing the decision," Chris Loder, a US-based spokesman for Bayer, said in an emailed statement.

Monsanto has been fighting lawsuits across the US Midwest since 2015, when farmers alleged its dicamba-based herbicide, now known as XtendiMax, vaporised and drifted onto nearby fields, damaging crops that weren’t designed to be resistant. BASF makes its own dicamba-based herbicide.

The companies say the problems were created when farmers applied the chemical incorrectly, and that dicamba’s current formulations won’t drift if proper procedures are followed.

Weather events

In Mr Bader’s case, the peach farmer said neighbours planted dicamba-resistant cotton engineered by Monsanto and sprayed it with the older, easy-drift version of the weedkiller made by BASF. The herbicide enveloped his peach orchards, curling leaves and killing trees.

He tried to get Monsanto to inspect his damaged trees, but was told by a company representative that it didn’t have the manpower to make it out to his farm. “He made it clear they weren’t going to do a durn thing about it,” Mr Bader told jurors.

The companies’ lawyers presented statistical evidence showing that Mr Bader’s peach yields had begun to fall prior to 2015. They cited weather events, such as hail storms and late freezes, as the cause for declining peach production.

Bev Randles, one of the Mr Bader's lawyers, said the combined $265 million in verdicts against Bayer and BASF sent a message to all US corporations. "There is no giant too big," she said in an interview after the punitive award. "Everyone has to follow the law." – Bloomberg