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Tennessee grower awaits fine in Monsanto case

(Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Richard Thompson, The Commercial Appeal: In December, a federal jury returned two verdicts in favor of Monsanto Co. against a West Tennessee grower for breach of contract and patent infringement.

A final judgment on the amount of damages is being considered by U.S. Dist. Judge Rodney W. Sippel of the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, St. Louis, where the agriculture giant is based.

Kem Ralph and his farming partnership, Ralph Bros. Farms, a cotton and soybean grower in Shelby, Tipton and Haywood counties, may have to pay Monsanto $1.78 million in damages for breaching the company's grower license agreement or $803,000 for patent infringement.

Ralph's lawyer, James Robertson of Wise Carter Child & Caraway in Jackson, Miss., said his client has appealed an October 2001 judgment by Sippel against Ralph that led to the jury trial on damages. The verdicts, which might also include Monsanto's legal fees and court costs, "could drive these people into bankruptcy," Robertson said of the impact on his client.

The lawsuit began in 2000. In October 2001, Ralph was found guilty of saving, replanting and selling Roundup Ready soybean seeds and cotton seeds in 1999 and 2000. The seeds are genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup so that only weeds, not the crops, die when exposed to the herbicide.

Replanting the patented seeds violates Monsanto's grower license agreement because growers are allowed to use the seeds for one commercial crop. Growers have to pay Monsanto for each use because of the patent, said Janice Armstrong, a Monsanto spokesman.

Robertson said the judge did not allow the defense to present all its evidence, including what it claims is proof that Ralph's signature was forged on the grower license agreement. Other farmers have made similar claims.

Since 1996, when Roundup Ready seeds were introduced, Monsanto has reached a settlement in a little more than 100 cases pitting the seeds' technology against the farmers' tradition of reusing seeds for crops, Armstrong said. In about 60 cases, a lawsuit was filed; only three, including Ralph's case, have gone to court, and Monsanto has never lost, he said.