Walter Pierce

Jury award in crawfish case goes to seed

by Walter Pierce

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal has reversed the awards handed down by a St. Landry Parish jury to three crawfish buyer/processors. The ruling strips Patrick E. Phillips Jr., James Bernard, and Lisa Guillory of awards of $900,000, $750,000, and $100,000, respectively, and does not bode well for future lawsuits.

The case has its genesis in 1999 when farmers in St. Landry and elsewhere began using a product called ICON to coat the rice seed to prevent rice weevils from the destroying the crop. But the product, manufactured by Bayer Crop Science, had an unforeseen side effect: It sterilized the crawfish, which are an important by-product of rice farming and a source of income for rice farmers. The sterilization of the crawfish dealt a blow to the crawfish crop. The rice/crawfish farmers affected by ICON settled with Bayer and with other defendants.

Enter the second link in the chain that leads from crawfish in the field to crawfish boiling in a pot: the middle men who buy the crawfish from the rice farmers and process the crustacean crop for sale to restaurants and markets. More than 70 such buyer/processors tried to combine for a class-action lawsuit, but were unable to certify the class, leaving Phillips, Bernard and Guidry as so-called “bellwether” plaintiffs, in effect functioning as a test case for a later class-action lawsuit. In 2007, the trio’s legal team convinced a civil jury in the 27th Judicial District in Opelousas that buyers/processors also suffered losses in the inadvertent sterilization of crawfish, leading to the damage awards.

However, writing for a 4-1 majority on the Third Circuit, Judge Elizabeth A. Pickett says, “the plaintiffs in this case have failed to prove a proprietary interest in the crawfish crop destroyed by the use of ICON. Therefore, the plaintiff’s cause must fail.”