Crowder denies defense venue spin-off in atrazine cases
Seven named plaintiffs in a series of proposed class actions aimed at the makers of a common weed killer will remain in Madison County, a judge has ruled.
Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder entered an order April 14 denying a move by the defendants in the suits to spin off Carlinville, Flora, Mattoon, Mount Olive, Litchfield, Hillsboro, and Fairfield and send them back to their home counties to pursue lawsuits there.
Crowder's five-page order came the same afternoon that she was to hear arguments on two motions to dismiss a pair of the class actions filed by defendants United Agri-Products and Syngenta Crop Protection Inc.
The seven cities join the original lead plaintiff in the case, Holiday Shores Sanitation District, alleging that atrazine, a common herbicide, runs off farm fields and contaminates drinking water supplies.
The eight plaintiffs currently propose to lead a class of Illinois municipalities and other water providers in seeking unspecified relief from the various companies that make and sell atrazine.
Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that atrazine is safe in drinking water up to three parts per billion, the plaintiffs allege that smaller concentrations cause human health problems.
Defendants in the case had asked that the seven plaintiffs be split off because the alleged damage to their properties, as claimed in earlier complaints, did not occur in Madison County.
They argued at a Feb. 22 hearing that under Illinois law, the seven must bring their claims in their home counties.
The defendants also cited Illinois Supreme Court Rule 382 that governs the transfer and consolidation of actions that don't share a common venue. The defendants contended that under the rule, the seven cities must first file separate suits in their home counties and move up to the State Supreme Court before they can be added to the Holiday Shores suit.
At the same hearing, plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Tillery asked for and was granted leave to file a second amended complaint. That complaint dropped most of the property-related claims.
According to Crowder's April 14 order, that proved to be a key move.
"The defendant has not established that plaintiff's venue choice is improper now that plaintiffs have withdrawn their claims except for money damages," Crowder's order reads. "The motion to transfer is denied."
Crowder also cited a Feb. 9 stipulation filed by Growmark, a defendant in all of the six suits, which stated it did do business in Madison County. That stipulation was entered without objections from the co-defendants.
By stipulating that Growmark does business in Madison, Crowder interpreted that to meet the residence test under Illinois venue law.
"The newly added plaintiffs meet the general venue statute and would be allowed to proceed here," Crowder wrote. "Of course, here, the defendant asserts that the nature of the claims filed by plaintiffs override the venue statutes and lead to the conclusion that venue for the newly-named plaintiffs is improper in Madison County. These arguments were more powerful before plaintiff withdrew many of its claims."
Just prior to the April 14 hearing on the two motions to dismiss, defendant Growmark asked to quash the hearing date until the venue issue was decided.
Tillery recently filed a federal lawsuit related to atrazine and plans to represent municipalities and water treatment providers in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, Iowa and Ohio in that case.
His suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on March 8, seeks class action status in a case against Syngenta Crop Protection and Syngenta AG.
Crowder took over the case from Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack in August of last year. Stack has announced he will retire at the end of this year.
The defendants have 30 days to file an answer.
The defendants and their representation are as follows:
Sipcam Agro USA is represented by Geoffrey Bryce. Growmark and Dow Chemical Company are represented by Robert Shultz Jr. Syngenta is represented by Kurtis Reeg. United Agri-Products Inc. is represented by Reeg in a special limited appearance. Drexel Chemical Company is represented by Daniel Cray. Makhteshim-Agan of North America is represented by Russell Scott.
The atrazine cases are Madison case numbers 04-L-708 to 04-L-713.
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