Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Isle farmers take
DuPont back to court

They seek an additional
settlement after new evidence
came to light in the chemical case

By Lyn Danninger

The latest round in a long legal battle fought against DuPont Co. by farmers in Hawaii and 20 other states moves into federal District Court in Honolulu today.

The lawsuits stem from a case involving a DuPont fungicide, Benlate DF, used by the farmers in the late 1980s and early '90s. Because of a manufacturing defect, the fungicide wiped out crops and injured plants and soils.

DuPont recalled Benlate DF in 1991 after growers complained about crop damage. Since the recall, up to 500 farmers in 21 states, including Hawaii, have sued DuPont. At one time, about 120 of those cases originated in Hawaii. Seventy-two cases were consolidated in the Kona court in 1992 to hear evidence on farmers' complaints.

DuPont paid more that $500 million to growers nationwide before suspending payments in 1992, citing research the company said showed its product was not responsible for any crop damage.

Since that time, DuPont has consistently denied that plant injuries and losses were caused by Benlate or product contaminants introduced during the manufacturing process.

But after many of the cases were settled, 1995 and 1996 court cases by farmers in Georgia and Hawaii brought to light evidence that DuPont deliberately concealed and lied about critical evidence and test results showing Benlate had been contaminated with herbicides.

In 1995, a federal judge in Georgia fined DuPont $112 million and accused the company of fraud. In 1996, Big Island Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra issued similar findings in a case involving Kona farmers Raymond Kawamata and Stanley Tomono. The farmers won judgments totaling $23.8 million. DuPont was fined $1.5 million.

Since those findings and the hefty judgments against DuPont, farmers who originally settled with the company have been returning to court, saying they settled for far less than they should have had the critical evidence against DuPont been available.

Two of those farmers are brothers David and Steven Matsuura, both Big Island orchid farmers. David Matsuura is also a state senator.

San Francisco attorney Steve Cox represents the Matsuuras and three other Hawaii farmers. Cox said there are now about 150 similar cases nationwide in various stages of litigation. About 35 to 40 of those cases are in Kona.

In the latest round to be heard in federal District Court today, lawyers for DuPont will argue two motions asking for the case to be dismissed. One motion contends that the farmers settled their case, even though they knew of new developments. "They claimed they didn't know certain information when they settled the case. That's simply not true," said Warren Price, an attorneys representing DuPont.

Even if the farmers were unaware of new information about Benlate and DuPont, Price said he will argue that the case should be taken back to Judge Ibarra.

But plaintiff's attorney Cox said that since courts already established that DuPont concealed information and lied about it, the company should not be permitted to re-argue the case. "We should not have to prove it again," Cox said.

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