Monday, December 5, 2022
It’s been a while since I did a blog article on recent court developments involving farmers, ranchers rural landowners and agribusinesses. I have been on the road just about continuously for the last couple of months and nine more events remain between now and Christmas. But, let me take a moment today (and later this week) to provide a summary of some recent court cases involving agriculture.
Recent court opinions involving agriculture – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Jumping Mouse Habitat Designation Upheld
Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association, et al. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 494 F.Supp.3d 850 (D. N.M. 2020), aff’d., 30 F.4th 1210 (10th Cir. 2022)
In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse as an endangered species based on substantial habitat loss and fragmentation from grazing, water management, drought and wildfire. Accordingly, in 2016, the USFWS designated 14,000 acres along 170 miles of streams and waterways in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado as critical habitat for the mouse. The U.S. Forest Service erected fencing around some streams and watering holes in the Santa Fe and Lincoln National Forests that were in the designated area The plaintiffs, two livestock organizations, with members that graze cattle in those national forests, sued in 2018 claiming that the USFWS failed to sufficiently consider the economic impact of the critical habitat designation. The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the USFWS was justified in its decision. The trial court also determined that the USFWS need not compensate the plaintiffs for the reduction in value of the plaintiffs’ water rights. The trial court reasoned that the USFWS need not consider all of the economic impacts associated with the mouse’s listing when designating critical habitat, only the incremental costs of the designation itself. The court cited the nine-month annual hibernation period of the mouse giving it only a short time to breed and gain weight for the winter and, as such, the mouse’s habitat needed to remain ideal with tall, dense grass and forage around flowing streams in the designated area. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court held that the assessment method of the USFWS for determining the economic impacts of the critical habitat designation on the water rights of the plaintiffs’ members was adequately considered, and that the USFWS had reasonably supported its decision not to exclude certain areas from the critical habitat designation.
Court Reduces Dicamba Drift Damage Award; Case Continues on Punitive Damages Issue
Hahn v. Monsanto Co., 39 F.4th 954 (8th Cir. 2022)
The plaintiff claimed that his peach orchard was destroyed after the defendants (Monsanto and BASF) conspired to develop and market dicamba-tolerant seeds and dicamba-based herbicides. The plaintiff claimed that the damage to the peaches occurred when dicamba drifted from application to neighboring fields. The plaintiff claimed that the defendants released the dicamba-tolerant seed with no corresponding dicamba herbicide that could be safely applied. As a result, farmers illegally sprayed an old formulation of dicamba herbicide that was unapproved for in-crop, over-the-top, use and was "volatile," or prone to drift. While many cases had previously been filed on the dicamba drift issue, the plaintiff did not join the other litigation because it focused on damages to soybean crops. Monsanto moved to dismiss the claims for failure to warn; negligent training; violation of the Missouri Crop Protection Act; civil conspiracy; and joint liability for punitive damages. BASF moved to dismiss those same counts except the claims for failure to warn. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss in part. Monsanto argued that the failure to warn claims were preempted by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act ("FIFRA"), but the plaintiff claimed that no warning would have prevented the damage to the peaches. The trial court determined that the plaintiff had adequately plead the claim and denied the motion to dismiss this claim. Both Monsanto and BASF moved to dismiss the negligent training claim, but the trial court refused to do so. However, the trial court did dismiss the claims based on the Missouri Crop Protection Act, noting that civil actions under this act are limited to “field crops” which did not include peaches. The trial court did not dismiss the civil conspiracy claim based on concerted action by agreement but did dismiss the aiding and abetting portion of the claim because that cause of action is no recognized under Missouri tort law. The parties agreed to a separate jury determination of punitive damages for each defendant. Bader Farms, Inc. v. Monsanto Co., et al., No. MDL No. 1:18md2820-SNLJ, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114302 (E.D. Mo. July 10, 2019). The jury found that Monsanto had negligently designed or failed to warn for 2015 and 2016 and the both defendants had done so for 2017 to the present. The jury awarded the plaintiff $15 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages against Monsanto for 2015 and 2016. The jury also found that the defendants were acting in a joint venture and in a conspiracy. The plaintiff submitted a proposed judgment that both defendants were responsible for the $250 million punitive damages award. BASF objected, but the trial court found the defendants jointly liable for the full verdict in light of the jury’s finding that the defendants were in a joint venture. Bader Farms, Inc. v. Monsanto Co., et al., MDL No. 1:18-md-02820-SNJL, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34340 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 28, 2020). BASF then moved for a judgment as a matter of law on punitive damages or motion for a new trial or remittitur (e.g., asking the court to reduce the damage award), and Monsanto moved for a judgment as a matter of law or a new trial. The trial court, however, found both defendants jointly liable, although the court lowered the punitive damages to $60 million after determining a lack of actual malice. The trial court did uphold the $15 million compensatory damage award upon finding that the correct standard under Missouri law was applied to the farm’s damages. Bader Farms, Inc. v. Monsanto Co, et al., MDL No. 1:18md2820-SNLJ, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 221420 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 25, 2020). The defendants filed a notice of appeal on December 22, 2020.
On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the trial court on the causation issue noting that the defendant retained direct contact with the farmers and exercised some degree of control over their actions. As such, the defendant was aware of the foreseeable consequences that could come from not controlling the farmers’ actions more closely. On the compensatory damage issue, the defendant argued that compensatory damages should be measured by the difference in the value of the orchard before and after the damage. The appellate court disagreed, noting that such a calculation only applied when the victim is the owner of the land and not a tenant as was the plaintiff. Thus, compensatory damages were properly measured by lost profits. The defendant argued the damages were speculative, but the court found that Bader Farms had provided years of financial statements to show the usual costs and profits associated with farming the orchard. The appellate court determined that there was no doubt the defendant had full control over the critical aspects of the project. In 2007, BASF had relinquished their rights to the seed technology to the defendant, so they could not control something they had no rights to. The appellate court also affirmed the finding that BASF and Monsanto had engaged in a civil conspiracy by agreeing to sell products unlawfully and enabling the widespread use of a product that was illegal to spray during the growing season. As members of the civil conspiracy, BASF was correctly found to be severally liable for the damages. The appellate court also found that Bader Farms provided clear and convincing evidence that the companies had acted with reckless indifference, but the two had different degrees of culpability. The trial court should have assessed the punitive damages of the Monsanto and BASF separately. Thus, the appellate court affirmed in part and reversed and remanded the punitive damages judgment to the trial court.
Court Decides to Resolve Property Dispute by Requiring Parties to Use the Existing Property Line
Barlow v. Saxon Holdings Trust, No. SD37361, 2022 Mo. App. LEXIS 657 (Mo. Ct. App. Oct. 21, 2022)
The plaintiff and her husband purchased land in 1987 by warranty deed that included the language, “running thence Southwesterly along the fence 40 rods.” At the time the plaintiff purchased the property, a fence that ran north to south existed and the plaintiff believed and acted like she owned the land up to that fence. The defendant purchased the neighboring land in 2011 and executed a warranty deed that included the language, “beginning at the NE corner of the NE ¼ of said Section 23 and running SW 40 rods.” In the spring of 2020, the defendant hired a surveyor who informed the defendant that his property extended onto the plaintiff’s property to the “40-rod line.” The defendant put up an electric fence on the disputed property to claim it. In response the plaintiff hired a surveyor who determined the property line was on the original fence line. The plaintiff sued to quiet title. The trial court found ambiguity between the deeds and resolved the ambiguity in favor of the plaintiff and held the plaintiff had adversely possessed the land. The defendant appealed. The appellate court recognized that the deeds individually did not show patent ambiguity, but the difference between the two on the location of property line did create an ambiguity. The appellate court determined that one way to resolve the ambiguity would be to have the parties continue to occupy the land the way they had in accordance with one of the deeds or constructions. This was the trial court’s approach, and the appellate court affirmed the trial court on this point. The appellate court also noted that the trial court had found the plaintiff’s surveyor credible, and that credibility of a witness was a determination to be left to the trial court’s discretion that the appellate court would not disturb. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s resolution of the deed in favor of the plaintiff and determined it need not address the adverse possession claim.
Oil and Gas Lease on Disputed Property Invalidates Adverse Possession
Cottrill v. Quarry Enterprises, LLC, No. 2022 CA 00011, 2022 Ohio App. LEXIS 3191 (Ohio Ct. App. Sept. 27, 2022)
The plaintiff claimed that she had successfully adversely possessed the defendant’s property by receiving title to the property in 1971 from her mother and caring for the land by mowing and maintaining it and using it for recreational events for herself and family. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant, finding that the plaintiff failed to establish exclusive possession over the land due to an existing oil and gas lease that the defendant had executed. The plaintiff appealed, claiming that the lease did not invalidate her exclusive use. To show exclusive use, the plaintiff did not have to be the only person who used the land but needed to be the only person who asserted their right to possession over the land. The appellate court found that the oil and gas that existed on the property began in 1958. For the entirety of the time that the plaintiff claimed she had adversely possessed the property, the oil and gas company had the right of possession over the land in dispute, invalidating the plaintiff’s claim.