By Randell Chase
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – The U.S. Supreme Court refused without comment Monday to hear the DuPont Co.'s appeal of a lower court ruling that allowed six Hawaii plant growers to bring racketeering and fraud charges against the company for crop damage allegedly stemming from the use of the contaminated fungicide Benlate.
DuPont appealed to the Supreme Court after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously in December to reinstate the suit against DuPont, reversing a federal judge's decision.
DuPont's failure to persuade the Supreme Court to accept the case follows the appeal court's rejection of the company's motions to rehear the case or stay its decision.
''The Supreme Court ruled that, at this particular time, it would not use its discretion to hear one of the components of the case, deciding that it would not consider our appeal at this juncture,'' DuPont spokesman Anthony Farina said in a prepared statement. ''It is important to note that the issue has not been ruled on and can be reviewed through the appellate process after the case has been tried. The entire case now returns to trial at the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, where we are confident that we will be successful.''
Stephen Cox, a San Francisco attorney representing the growers, said he was pleased that the court ruled as he had expected. A trial involving allegations of common law fraud and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act is set for November.
''The bottom line for DuPont is that they're going to be facing a RICO claim in federal court in Honolulu,'' Cox said. ''Although they've spent nine years trying to avoid facing the piper, the piper is here.''
The case dates to 1994, when the Hawaii growers settled with DuPont for a combined $10 million in product liability cases before learning that the company withheld evidence of widespread contamination of Benlate with the herbicide sulfonylureas. The growers later filed suit after test data showing problems with the fungicide surfaced in other Benlate lawsuits.
DuPont, which began manufacturing Benlate in the 1950s, decided to halt production in 2001 in the face of mounting crop damage claims. The company has paid more than $1 billion in settlements and legal fees on damage claims associated with Benlate.
Last month, a Florida jury awarded tens of millions of dollars to a group of Costa Rican fern growers who argued that Benlate had damaged the ferns' underground stem systems, resulting in annual crop losses that continued for years. DuPont said it would appeal that verdict.
Last year, DuPont resolved 30 lawsuits involving Benlate, which has been the source of hundreds of lawsuits. In Delaware, one of three cases alleging that Benlate causes birth defects is pending before the state Supreme Court.