Farmers in 1997 fraud case finally getting paid

Categories: Business

Eleven years after filing suit and seven years after a jury ruled in their favor, more than 1,100 farmers--most of them from Minnesota--are waiting expectantly by their mailboxes for checks totaling nearly $32 million.

The money comes from chemical giant BASF. In the 1990's, BASF sold herbicide to farmers cultivating sugar beets, sunflowers and other specialty crops. While BASF marketed the herbicide under different names and at different prices, it was all actually the same stuff.

In 2001, a jury found BASF guilty of defrauding thousands of farmers. BASF's lawyers did all they could to drag the case out to the bitter end, with five trips to the Minnesota Supreme Court and two appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs attorneys leading the charge, Douglas Nill and Hugh Plunkett, both of Minneapolis, finally got paid in late 2006, netting around $30 million in fees. In a sad measure of how long the case plodded on, Plunkett died the month before the check arrived.

After nearly two years spent figuring out which claims were valid and how much each plaintiff deserves--a time-consuming and bedeviling process in itself--Nill has sent out payment to the farmers.

Here's what he had to say in a triumphant press release:

“This is an enormously successful national class action that rectifies a fraudulent market segmentation scheme. From their own admission, such marketing practices were common within the industry. For 10 years we fought a ‘David and Goliath’ battle with the chemical industry. The disbursement of the money judgment is a warning bell to the chemical industry that they cannot market and price herbicides using fraud and intimidation.”

And here's what he told me when I got him on the phone:

"It's a career case. One of those cases that students go to law school and they all kind of dream about. I spent the best years of my career litigating against the largest chemical company in the world. They hired squadrons of lawyers, with amicus briefs filed by guys like Ken Starr. There was enormous risk and, frankly, enormous success financially."

Now, he's ready to move on to something new.

"At some point you get kind of tired of it," he says.

Executives from BASF didn't return calls seeking comment.

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