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Judge rejects class action against seed producers

(Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- David Barboza, NY Times: A federal judge yesterday denied class-action status to an antitrust lawsuit that accused some of the world's biggest agricultural seed companies of conspiring to fix prices.

The decision is a severe blow to a case brought in 1999 by some of the nation's most prominent antitrust lawyers, who accused the Monsanto Company and other big agricultural seed makers of trying to control the booming market in genetically altered seeds in the 1990's.

Judge Rodney W. Sippel of Federal District Court in St. Louis wrote in a 20-page ruling that the plaintiffs had not provided "common evidence" to show that a broad class of farmers had been affected by the conspiracy described in the suit.

Judge Sippel sided with the companies, who argued in April that the pricing data for seeds was so varied, complicated and tied to geography, seed types and other conditions that there seemed no way to prove that a large group of farmers were affected.

"I am convinced that the impact of defendants' alleged antitrust violations cannot be shown on a class-wide basis with common proof," Judge Sippel wrote. "Instead, it is a highly individualized, fact-intensive inquiry that necessarily requires consideration of factors unique to each potential class member."

After the ruling, the companies accused in the case - Monsanto; Bayer; Syngenta; and Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's biggest seed company - praised the judge's decision and said the case against them had no merit.

"We obviously see this as a huge victory," said Bryan Hurley, a spokesman for Monsanto, based in St. Louis. "This pretty definitively concludes there's no basis to make broad claims."

Doyle Karr, a spokesman for Pioneer, a division of DuPont, also praised the ruling, saying, "As we have said since the case was filed, we believe the underlying claims are without merit."

The lawyers who brought the antitrust suit on behalf of a group of farmers said they planned to appeal.

"We're confident in our arguments for class certification that we plan to make to an appeals court," said Richard Lewis, a lawyer at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, the law firm that filed the suit. "The allegations of wrongdoing remain, and this opinion says nothing whatsoever about those allegations."

Just a week ago, Judge Sippel ruled that the antitrust case could go forward. But he did not decide whether it should go ahead as a class-action case, representing thousands of farmers, or as a much smaller case involving the small group of farmers who filed suit.

In that earlier ruling, Judge Sippel also dismissed a part of the class-action suit that sought relief for farmers who lost money after some export markets were closed to genetically altered crops.

The lawyers who filed suit, however, have argued in court that they have already seen internal records from the seed companies that show that a conspiracy took place.

But some of the companies, including Monsanto, say that the accusations have no merit, that the seed market is intensely competitive and that the lawsuit was initially backed by opponents of genetically altered crops who were simply seeking a way to slow the introduction of such crops.

The lawyers who filed suit have disputed that claim.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/02/business/02CROP.html