SAN ANTONIO – Texas attorney Mikal C. Watts said his attempt to garner at least $150 million in attorney fees from a $1.5 billion court settlement against Switzerland-based Syngenta AG, a global agribusiness chemical company accused of damaging U.S. farmers with genetically altered corn, is justified.
He also took on critics who contended he was abusing the court system.
“Forcing a multinational corporation who wrecked the corn market to pay $1.5 billion is not abusing the court system,” Watts told the Southeast Texas Record. “It is using our courts to right a wrong. That’s what we achieved in this case.”
Watts | MoreLaw
The case has been called the largest agricultural litigation settlement in U.S. history.
About 600,000 farmer plaintiffs filed suit against Syngenta, contending the firm’s genetically altered corn seed called “Viptera” drove down the U.S. grain market, financially damaging the country’s agriculture industry.
China, a major importer of corn seed, refused to import the genetically modified corn, allegedly causing farmers in the U.S. to lose billions of dollars. Another allegation said the altered corn had caused contamination of non-altered crops in this country.
Syngenta began selling the corn seed, which features an insect-resistant genetic trait called “MIR 162” to U.S. farmers in 2010 for the 2011 growing season under approval of the federal government. According to an Associated Press report China didn't approve the seed until 2014, which farmers alleged caused losses in U.S. exports to China and falling prices.
The Syngenta litigation was overseen in federal multi-district litigation in Kansas with state court proceedings in Minnesota and Illinois. Farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa joined the lawsuit.
In June 2017 Syngenta was ordered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas to pay $217.7 million to four Kansas farmers representing more than 7,300 growers in the state in a class action. Three months after the Kansas verdict, 22,000 farmers in Minnesota sought $400 million in damages from a state court.
In September 2017 Syngenta agreed to settle.
Separate cases against the company are pending in Canada. The settlement does not include lawsuits against the seed conglomerate filed by grain companies Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc.
Lead lawyers in the case, including Watts, asked for 50 percent of $500 million plus approximately $6.7 million in related expenses. Added fees would go to lead attorneys in the Minnesota and Illinois state court cases.
Watts runs the Watts Guerra Law Firm in San Antonio with partner Francisco Guerra. An Aug. 6 report in Texas Law said Guerra was lead co-counsel in the Minnesota state court while Watts was one of four lawyers appointed to a negotiating committee to represent the plaintiffs.
In April 2018 two farmers in North Dakota filed a fraud suit against Watts Guerra, alleging the firm duped farmers into filing individual suits instead of participating in the class action in an attempt to “double dip” on attorney fees. This could result, critics contend, in more than half the settlement money going to lawyers in the case.
However, Watts denied the allegation, calling the suit “frivolous and meritless” the report stated.
Watts was also sued April 24 by Doug Nil, a Minneapolis attorney who also alleged Watts and 13 other small law firms conspired to convince farmers not to participate in the class action to inflate attorney fees.
Watts said his fee application was submitted July 11.
He cited his law firm’s “unique position” in the litigation and said the fee request was based on his firm’s enormous investment in the case. He said he represented 57,000 farmers who could be entitled to damage amounts ranging from $345 million to $750 million according to reports.
Watts indicated that plaintiffs in the case should have the freedom to pick and choose who represents them in court.
“The fee application asks the court to enforce private fee contracts reached by 332 law firms with whom I am working with 57,000 clients to recover their losses from Syngenta,” Watts said. “At its core the issue comes down to whether clients get to choose their lawyer, or are forced to pay others they did not hire and do not know [class action].”
The original settlement called for two agreements. The first was for class and the second for individual plaintiffs. This was later changed to include four groups, two for farmers, one for grain handlers and another for producers of ethanol or grain alcohol, used as a fuel source and antiseptic.
The settlement is preliminary. Final approval is set Nov. 15.