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From March 10, 2005

MN Beekeepers Win in MN Supreme Court Against Pesticide Applicators
(Beyond Pesticides, March 10, 2005)
On March 3, 2005, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of beekeepers Jeff Anderson, Steve Ellis and Jim Whitlock, holding that nearby landowners who sprayed pesticides on their hybrid poplar groves could be held liable for damages to the beekeepers' neighboring apiaries. At issue was the landowners' use of Sevin XLR Plus, a carbaryl-based product that acts like nerve gas in destroying insects. Although the product was used to control cottonwood leaf beetles on the poplar groves, it had the same deadly effect on honeybees and other beneficial insects, that forage within the treated areas.

In their lawsuit, the beekeepers, represented by attorneys Stephen Rufer and Tim Rundquist of Fergus Falls, MN and Gary Van Cleve of Minneapolis, MN, alleged that the landowners, the State of Minnesota and International Paper, used Sevin on their plantings with actual or constructive knowledge that beekeeping operations were within forage range. The beekeepers have asserted that they suffered annual stock losses of thirty to fifty percent, and that the landowners did their spraying with full awareness of such a result.

The Minnesota District Court initially disposed of the lawsuit on summary judgment, holding that not only did the landowners have no legal obligation to the beekeepers, but also that the opinion testimony of a Minnesota Department of Agriculture official, submitted after commencement of the action, was entitled to deference as to his interpretation of the Sevin label. (see Daily News story.) The application directions on the label must be followed to the letter, as a matter of state and federal law, and the beekeepers had charged that numerous violations had occurred. Nonetheless, the official opined that label directions, according to his interpretation, had been properly followed, and the court held that this interpretation should control above all others.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with the district court, affirming its disposal of the case. However, in October 2004, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard the case, and in last Thursday's decision reversed all prior rulings.

First, the Court held that "a land possessor with actual knowledge or notice of foraging honey bees on the property comes under a duty of reasonable care in the application of pesticides." No other case nationwide had ever recognized a common-law duty specifically protecting bees; prior opinions had held that foraging bees should be regarded as "trespassers," and that a landowner therefore could use his land as he saw fit without any obligations to the bees.

Second, the Court determined that the "state agency expert's interpretation of the pesticide label was not entitled to judicial deference." In so ruling, the Court pointed out that the expert's opinion had been prepared in anticipation of the litigation at issue rather than as a matter of agency policy; thus, the state's expert should be entitled to no more deference than those proffered by the beekeepers, who had very different opinions as to proper interpretation of the Sevin label. In recognizing viable causes of action for the beekeepers, the Court remanded the case back to the District Court for further proceedings.

The implications of Anderson v. State of Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources are bound to be significant and widespread. Decimation of bee stocks due to illegal or negligent pesticide application is a nationwide problem, affecting not only honey production but the crucial pollination function that bees provide to blooming crops. For example, beekeeper Anderson has noted the drastic shortage of pollinators for this
spring's almond crops in California, which will be bound to result in reduced harvest figures.

As this year's orchard and planting seasons progress, and as farmers look to the root causes of their problems, they will be able to cite the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision as a model case: as a way to proceed in seeking reparations and, ultimately, in furthering the responsibility of pesticide applicators to proceed in accordance with the law.

See comments to EPA from Beyond Pesticides and over 300 beekeepers to EPA calling for a more protective bee caution on pesticide labels. Read more about the effects of pesticides on pollinators in this July 2003 Daily News Story.