EPA's OK can't bar pesticide lawsuits


WASHINGTON - Makers of pesticides and weed killers may be sued for damages if their products cause harm, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. It rejected the Bush administration's view and reversed lower courts.

The 7-2 ruling permits suits by farmers whose crops are damaged by pesticides, and consumers who are hurt by bug sprays.

In its first ruling on the scope of a 1972 pesticide law, the justices said the federal requirement that chemical companies submit their products for approval by the Environmental Protection Agency did not "give pesticide manufacturers virtual immunity" from being sued if those products proved to be harmful to people, plants, or animals.

The ruling restores the law to what it had been before the 1990s.

Five years ago, 29 Texas peanut farmers were persuaded by agents of Dow Chemical Co. to try Strongarm, a newly approved weed killer. The farmers say Strongarm killed the weeds and their peanut plants.

The farmers notified Dow they would sue in a Texas court under terms of the state's consumer protection law.

It allows suits for products that are defective or are deceptively marketed.

Lawyers for Dow went to a U.S. district court and asserted a shield against such suits.

A district judge agreed with Dow and dismissed the farmers' suit.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed.

In another case, the U.S. government's conviction of accounting giant Arthur Andersen appeared in jeopardy after several justices indicated yesterday that they thought prosecutors had stretched the law in punishing the firm for destroying documents related to Enron Corp.

In 2002, a Texas jury convicted Andersen for witness tampering under a law aimed at anyone "who knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person" to withhold or destroy a document sought by investigators in "an official proceeding."

Blade Washington Bureau reporter Michael McGough contributed to this story.