Supreme Court Allows Citizens to Seek Legal Redress for Harm Caused By Pesticides

Manufacturers' attempt to lock courthouse doors fails


Brian Smith, Earthjustice 510-550-6714
Patti Goldman, Earthjustice 206-343-7340

The United States Supreme Court today upheld the right of people to sue pesticide manufacturers to compensate them for injuries caused by toxic pesticides.

Read the Supreme Court decision here.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle, was the principal author of the friend of the court brief submitted by public health and conservation groups in this case arguing that pesticide makers can be held accountable in court for pesticide-caused injuries.

Statement on today’s ruling by Patti Goldman:

“This decision is a victory for fairness to individuals who are poisoned by toxic pesticides. This decision makes pesticide manufacturers accountable for the harm their products cause and creates incentives for those corporations to refrain from promoting dangerous pesticides and to make sure their labels disclose and guard against the risks posed by these products.”


In Bates v. Dow Agrosciences, the US Supreme Court was asked to determine whether federal pesticide law closes the courthouse doors to people injured by pesticides. In Bates, Texas farmers applied an herbicide called “Strongarm” to prevent weeds in their peanut crops, but Strongarm stunted the peanut crops, causing serious economic damage. The Texas farmers went to state court in an effort to make the pesticide makers pay for damage to the crops. The pesticide makers claimed they are shielded from court challenges by federal law, the key dispute before the US Supreme Court. The importance of the case, however, goes beyond the right to recover for crop damage. The Supreme Court’s ruling also determined that thousands of people harmed by pesticides can hold pesticide companies accountable in state courts for making and distributing dangerous chemicals. Pesticide companies had claimed that federal law shields them from all such suits. The court ruled against the pesticide companies today.

Under federal pesticide law, pesticide companies must write and update labels for their products that guard against adverse health and environmental effects. EPA approves the labels submitted by the companies under a risk-benefit standard that does not prevent all harm to the public. A pesticide is misbranded if its label does not provide adequate health and environmental protection, and EPA’s approval of the label is no defense to a misbranding offense.

Dow Agrosciences, joined by the Bush administration, had argued that federal law insulates pesticide makers from injured parties’ lawsuits. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, upholding the right to sue for harm caused by defectively designing, negligent testing, and misbranding a pesticide.

While federal law preempts state labeling “requirements,” in today’s ruling, the Court recognized that:

“[a] requirement is a rule of law that must be obeyed; an event, such as a jury verdict, that merely motivates an optional decision is not a requirement…The long history of tort litigation against manufacturers of poisonous substances adds force to the basic presumption against pre-emption. If Congress had intended to deprive injured parties of a long available form of compensation, it surely would have expressed that intent more clearly.”

The friend of the court brief written by Earthjustice, Public Citizen, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, urged the Court to preserve citizens’ rights to recover for harms caused by pesticides on behalf of: Physicians for Social Responsibility, Farmworker Justice Fund, Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Public Citizen, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

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