Bellwether trials planned for Syngenta paraquat cases

Plaintiffs who allege that paraquat weed killer caused them to suffer serious illnesses are getting closer to having their “day in court.” In an October hearing, U.S. District Judge Nancy Rosenstengel of the Southern District of Illinois asked lawyers representing more than 380 cases to start plaintiff assessments for bellwether trials slated to take place next year, according to US Right to Know.Rosenstengel tells parties to prepare for bellwether trials

The court has not chosen the plaintiffs for the bellwether trials. Rosenstengel has ordered the preservation of internal documents and other materials that could prove relevant in the cases. These and other materials will be made available to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Rosenstengel wants all parties to be prepared for a bellwether trial to commence around October 2022. The judge has also asked that attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants begin coordinating with pending paraquat lawsuits in state courts, which, to date, include courts in Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California.

Purpose of the bellwether trials

A standard step in the mass tort process, bellwether trials give both sides of a lawsuit the opportunity to “test drive” their legal arguments and get a preview of the potential range of damages before the bulk of cases with similar questions of fact go to trial. The outcome of bellwether trials also gives both plaintiffs and defendants information on which to base any settlement considerations.

Typically, the judge who is managing multidistrict litigation (MDL) selects a handful of cases for bellwether trials. This is why Rosenstengel is now asking plaintiffs’ lawyers to begin assessing their clients—a process usually accomplished with questionnaires and submission of medical records and relevant documents. The court will look for cases that represent specific sub-groups of cases in the MDL.

For example, if paraquat caused the death of multiple individuals, Rosenstengel might select one of these cases for a bellwether trial. Because paraquat has been linked with Parkinson’s disease, the judge will likely choose a case in which the plaintiff alleges to have developed Parkinson’s disease for a bellwether trial.

A useful tool in MDL cases

Bellwethers are of particular use in cases that have been consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL). When a large number of lawsuits share similar questions of fact, a party can move to have all the cases’ pretrial and discovery hearings consolidated in a federal court.

This process serves not only to move the litigation forward more swiftly than it would in hundreds or thousands of individual lawsuits but also ensures that significant court rulings are consistent across all actions that share common questions of fact.

The MDL will remain open to future cases. If additional lawsuits against Syngenta surface, they will be moved to the Southern District of Illinois and join the MDL as “tag-along” cases. Rosenstengel could dismiss some MDL cases. Others could settle. Those that are not dismissed or settled will ultimately return to their original state courts for trial.