Madison County atrazine suits may be stayed as federal case settles

By Ann Maher | May 30, 2012



A number of pending discovery motions in an eight-year-old Madison County suit involving atrazine may be moot as a result of the $105 million settlement proposed last week in a similar federal court case.

Syngenta Crop Protection and Syngenta AG on May 24 agreed to the multi-million dollar settlement for claims of water providers in six Midwestern states.

The water providers alleged that the weed killer atrazine entered and damaged their water supplies. Syngenta - a leading manufacturer of atrazine – maintains that the herbicide meets the most stringent safety requirements and is important to farmers worldwide. It admitted no liability in the settlement which will in part provide approximately 2,000 water districts in the U.S. a payment of $5,000.

The federal court case took shape from six class action lawsuits lead attorney Stephen Tillery filed in Madison County in 2004 on behalf of Holiday Shores Sanitary District against various manufacturers of atrazine.

According to Syngenta, the settlement will likely stay the Madison County cases that are presided over by Circuit Judge William Mudge. Of those six cases, the one against Syngenta is the only one that has developed through discovery.

The list of named plaintiffs in the case against Syngenta has grown to include many southern Illinois municipalities and water providers in communities where agriculture is the top industry.

It also has expanded to include non-defendant third parties - such as the Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Fertilizer Chemical Association, Chemical Industry Council and the Heartland Institute - that Tillery claims helped Syngenta conceal the harm atrazine causes.

Since last year, Mudge has held under advisement various discovery motions in the suit against Syngenta.

Mudge has not yet ruled on a Nov. 2, 2011, motion to reconsider an order that Heartland Institute claims "eviscerated" the First Amendment in Illinois discovery disputes. Among other things, Heartland argues that information about its contributors is privileged and not subject to discovery by Tillery.

"This court should reconsider and reverse the Order as to Heartland because the decision erroneously applied existing law and because new evidence and newly-issued opinions in related cases support reversal," Heartland wrote in its motion to reconsider.

Heartland, a Chicago-based think tank that describes itself as providing free-market solutions to social and economic problems, is represented by C. Raymond Bell of Foley & Mansfield in St. Louis.

The order it wants reconsidered was entered in September 2010 by Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder, who formerly presided over the case until she was reassigned exclusively to the court's asbestos docket. Crowder's order allowed Tillery to discover evidence among non-parties to the litigation, such as Heartland Institute.

She wrote that her order sought to balance the third parties' First Amendment rights with what is discoverable under Illinois law.

The Fifth District Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court last year denied petitions for review of Crowder's order.

Heartland president Joseph Bast has testified that identifying contributors would expose them to demonization and might cost him half his support.

"Many Heartland donors have been demonized for donating to Heartland, which led Heartland to promise anonymity to all donors beginning in 2004...248 donors specifically conditioned their donations on anonymity," Bell wrote in the motion to reconsider.

"Pharmaceutical donors in particular fear their applications to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for new drug approvals would be denied in retribution for their Heartland donations."

Bell also wrote that three websites exist for the sole purpose of attacking and demonizing donors to groups including Heartland. He wrote that a bomb threat was received in August 2007, in which a caller said Heartland Institute was a propaganda organization "and you're basically out to smear the whole global warming issue."

"...I hope your building explodes, while nobody's in it. I don't want anyone hurt, but I want your organization destroyed. So (expletive) off."

The six class action cases were originally presided over by now retired Circuit Judge Dan Stack, who for more than two years considered motions to dismiss. Stack eventually denied those motions in 2008. The cases were transferred to Crowder after Stack announced he would be retiring in December 2010.

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