Ex parte Monsanto Co.

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Writing for the CourtSEE, Justice.
PartiesEx parte MONSANTO COMPANY and Solutia, Inc. (In re Sabrina Abernathy et al. v. Monsanto Company et al.)
Decision Date26 February 2003

862 So.2d 595

Ex parte MONSANTO COMPANY and Solutia, Inc.
(In re Sabrina Abernathy et al.
v.
Monsanto Company et al.)

1011393.

Supreme Court of Alabama.

February 26, 2003.

As Modified on Denial of Rehearing May 9, 2003.


862 So.2d 598
Warren B. Lightfoot, Jere F. White, Jr., Harlan I. Prater IV, Adam K. Peck, and
862 So.2d 599
William S. Cox of Lightfoot, Franklin & White, L.L.C., Birmingham; George P. Ford of Ford & Howard, P.C., Gadsden; and W. Stancil Starnes of Starnes & Atchison, L.L.P., Birmingham, for petitioners

Donald W. Stewart, Anniston, for respondents.

William H. Pryor, Jr., atty. gen., and R. Craig Kneisel and William D. Little, asst. attys. gen.; Joseph D. Hubbard, district atty., Calhoun County, Anniston; Robert E. Owens, district atty., Shelby County, Columbiana; W. Van Davis, district atty., St. Clair County, Pell City; and Steve Giddens, district atty., Talladega County, Talladega, for the State.

Olivia H. Jenkins, gen. counsel, and James L. Wright, Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

SEE, Justice.

This petition for the writ of mandamus is the third mandamus petition to arise out of a toxic-tort case pending against Monsanto Company, Pharmacia Corporation,1 and Solutia, Inc.2 (hereinafter referred to collectively as "Monsanto"), in the Etowah Circuit Court. Monsanto asks this Court to direct the trial judge, Joel Laird, to recuse himself from this case because, it argues, Judge Laird's conduct and public remarks about Monsanto would lead a reasonable person to question whether Judge Laird was biased against Monsanto or lacked impartiality. Monsanto argues that Judge Laird's comments and actions both in and out of the courtroom demonstrate an appearance of bias against Monsanto. Monsanto is particularly concerned about comments Judge Laird made in connection with a March 12, 2002, settlement conference and in what Monsanto terms "ex parte newspaper and television interviews." This Court denies Monsanto's petition.

Monsanto manufactured and disposed of polychlorinated biphenyls ("PCBs") in Anniston, Alabama, from 1935 to 1971. A portion of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 2605(e), bans the manufacture and distribution of PCBs in the United States.

In March 1996, Thomas Long, Sr., sued Monsanto, alleging that Monsanto had released PCBs and other harmful chemicals into the air, soil, surface water, and groundwater near his property in Calhoun County. Long further alleged that he suffered physical and other damage as a result of the release of those harmful chemicals. Two additional actions were filed against Monsanto alleging negligence, wantonness, breach of a duty to warn, fraud, misrepresentation, deceit, nuisance, trespass, the tort of outrage, common-law strict liability, assault, battery, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress in the release of those chemicals. The trial court consolidated the three actions; there are currently over 3,500 plaintiffs in the consolidated action. This case is not a class action.

The trial court originally scheduled the trial to begin on March 15, 1999. On March 1, 1999, Monsanto petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus, claiming that the trial could not possibly begin because the trial court had not ruled on approximately 30 pending motions. On March 8, 1999, this Court stayed the proceedings and ordered answer and briefs. On March 23, 2001, this Court denied Monsanto's mandamus petition. Ex parte Monsanto Co., 794 So.2d 350

862 So.2d 600
(Ala.2001) ("Monsanto I"). This Court noted
"It would have been an abuse of discretion for the trial court to proceed to trial on these toxic-tort cases without a case-management order to govern the disposition of the cases. However, the passage of time and the intervening actions of the trial court taken at our direction have resolved many of the issues raised in Monsanto's petition."

794 So.2d at 352. This Court instructed the trial court to rule on Monsanto's change-of-venue motion in a timely manner and to issue a case-management order. 794 So.2d at 358.

The trial court ordered a change of venue and moved the trial from Calhoun County to Etowah County. On January 7, 2002, a jury trial began on claims common to all the plaintiffs and on the property-damage claims of 17 plaintiffs.3 None of those 17 plaintiffs presented personal-injury claims other than claims seeking damages for mental anguish. On February 22, 2002, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and found Monsanto liable on the plaintiffs' claims of wantonness, the tort of outrage, suppression of the truth, negligence, trespass, nuisance, and public nuisance.

On February 25, 2002, Judge Laird ordered the parties to be present in his courtroom on March 2, 2002, for a settlement conference.4 On Tuesday, February 26, 2002, Monsanto moved the trial court to postpone the March 2 settlement conference. Judge Laird denied the motion. On Wednesday, February 27, 2002, in a telephone conversation, Monsanto's attorney again asked Judge Laird to postpone the March 2 conference. Judge Laird responded that he would reschedule the conference if Monsanto gave him written assurance that everyone he had ordered to be present at the conference would be present at a rescheduled conference on an alternative date.

On February 28, 2002, Monsanto's attorneys faxed Judge Laird a letter, stating that they had informed everyone involved with the case that the settlement conference would not take place on March 2,

862 So.2d 601
2002, and that Monsanto would provide Judge Laird with an alternative date. At 5:50 p.m. on March 1, 2002, Monsanto's attorneys faxed Judge Laird another letter, stating that eight of the nine people Judge Laird had ordered to be present at the settlement conference would be available for a settlement conference on March 12

On March 2, 2002, Judge Laird went on the record in his courtroom to state that Monsanto was not present for the conference that had been scheduled for that day. In court on March 5, 2002, in a dialogue with attorneys for the parties present, Judge Laird stated on the record:

"And I understand it's not easy to get these nine folks in one room at one time... That's why I was certainly agreeable to rescheduling that conference, but I did want a little more assurance than I had, but now that I have that assurance, I am pleased that they will be here ... And I certainly hope that we can get some things accomplished that day."

On the morning of March 12, 2002, the parties met in Judge Laird's courtroom for the settlement conference. At some point during the conference, Monsanto petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus ordering the trial court not to compel Monsanto's chief executive officer, its chief financial officer, and its general counsel to testify during the March 12, 2002, settlement conference. Around 12:40 p.m., Monsanto stated that it would no longer participate in the settlement conference because Judge Laird had threatened the chairman of Solutia, Inc., with contempt sanctions for failing to participate in the settlement negotiations in good faith.5 Judge Laird then withdrew the threat of contempt sanctions, but Monsanto stated that it would no longer participate in settlement efforts. At 12:44 p.m. the trial court went on the record and called Solutia's chairman, John Hunter, to testify. During the course of Hunter's testimony, Monsanto's attorney, Jere White, stated on the record:

"I did not come here today prepared to reach a resolution of cleanup with [the Alabama Department of Environmental Management], the attorney general's office, the district attorney's office, or any other governmental agency. I have never had a substantive conversation with representatives from any of those groups."

Judge Laird responded:

"That's not my fault. That's why I asked you to be here today, Mr. White, because I knew that on your own you would not have those conversations."

At 1:10 p.m.6 Monsanto moved this Court for "an immediate order staying all proceedings before the trial court in this case, including the `settlement conference' currently underway." This Court did not stay all proceedings, but on March 12, 2002, this Court did stay the settlement conference and any other proceedings being conducted by the trial court pursuant to Rule 16, Ala. R. Civ. P. At approximately 2:00 p.m., as the trial court prepared to recess for an hour, Monsanto's attorney, on the record in open court, "advise[d] the [trial] Court that we have been notified that the Supreme Court has issued a stay of all proceedings [in the case]

862 So.2d 602
which would include Mr. Branchfield testifying." (Transcript at 6677.)7

At that point, the trial court already had adjourned the settlement conference. Based on the representation made by Monsanto's attorney as to the scope of the stay issued by this Court, Judge Laird suspended all other proceedings in the trial as well. This Court subsequently dismissed Monsanto's mandamus petition as moot because the settlement conference had been adjourned. Judge Laird resumed proceedings in the case later in the day on March 12 when he learned that this Court had stayed only the settlement conference and any other proceedings being conducted pursuant to Rule 16, Ala. R. Civ. P.8

862 So.2d 603
After the jury had submitted its liability verdict on February 22, 2002, it was presented evidence of the individual property-damage claims. In the next phase of the trial, the jury will hear evidence concerning personal-injury claims. The trial court has not entered a final judgment on any claims. The trial court has permitted several governmental entities to intervene as plaintiffs, including the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management ("ADEM"). The trial court ordered, sua sponte, that the City of Anniston be added as a plaintiff with respect to claims for injunctive relief

On March 29, 2002, Monsanto moved...

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57 practice notes
  • Griffin v. Unocal Corp., 1061214.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 25, 2008
    ...1104 (Ala.2006) (1,600 plaintiffs); Ex parte Flexible Prods. Co., 915 So.2d 34 (Ala.2005) (1,675 plaintiffs); and Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595 (Ala.2003) (3,500 I submit that under either view of the implications of the Garrett rule, the law is confounded; thus, a continued blind ob......
  • Davis v. Self, Civil Action No. CV–12–S–2402–NW.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • February 25, 2013
    ...to do so; 3) the lack of another adequate remedy; and 4) properly invoked jurisdiction of the court.’ ” ' ” “Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595, 604 (Ala.2003) (quoting Ex parte Butts, 775 So.2d 173, 176 (Ala.2000), quoting in turn Ex parte United Serv. Stations, Inc., 628 So.2d 501, 503 ......
  • Commonwealth Of Va. v. Prieto, No. FE-2005-1764
    • United States
    • Virginia Circuit Court of Virginia
    • March 8, 2010
    ...of his perceived bias was extra-judicial; it was a bias derived from personal objections to the governing law."); Ex Parte Monsanto Co., 862 So. 2d 595, 625 (Ala. 2003) ("The evidence presented in Monsanto's petition does not suggest that Judge Laird exhibited any bias before the commenceme......
  • Cline v. Ashland, Inc., 1041076.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 5, 2007
    ...1104 (Ala.2006) (1,600 plaintiffs); Ex parte Flexible Prods. Co., 915 So.2d 34 (Ala.2005) (1,675 plaintiffs); and Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595 (Ala.2003) (3,500 I submit that under either view of the implications of the Garrett rule, the law is confounded; thus, a continued blind ob......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
57 cases
  • Griffin v. Unocal Corp., 1061214.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 25, 2008
    ...1104 (Ala.2006) (1,600 plaintiffs); Ex parte Flexible Prods. Co., 915 So.2d 34 (Ala.2005) (1,675 plaintiffs); and Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595 (Ala.2003) (3,500 I submit that under either view of the implications of the Garrett rule, the law is confounded; thus, a continued blind ob......
  • Davis v. Self, Civil Action No. CV–12–S–2402–NW.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • February 25, 2013
    ...to do so; 3) the lack of another adequate remedy; and 4) properly invoked jurisdiction of the court.’ ” ' ” “Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595, 604 (Ala.2003) (quoting Ex parte Butts, 775 So.2d 173, 176 (Ala.2000), quoting in turn Ex parte United Serv. Stations, Inc., 628 So.2d 501, 503 ......
  • Commonwealth Of Va. v. Prieto, No. FE-2005-1764
    • United States
    • Virginia Circuit Court of Virginia
    • March 8, 2010
    ...of his perceived bias was extra-judicial; it was a bias derived from personal objections to the governing law."); Ex Parte Monsanto Co., 862 So. 2d 595, 625 (Ala. 2003) ("The evidence presented in Monsanto's petition does not suggest that Judge Laird exhibited any bias before the commenceme......
  • Cline v. Ashland, Inc., 1041076.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 5, 2007
    ...1104 (Ala.2006) (1,600 plaintiffs); Ex parte Flexible Prods. Co., 915 So.2d 34 (Ala.2005) (1,675 plaintiffs); and Ex parte Monsanto Co., 862 So.2d 595 (Ala.2003) (3,500 I submit that under either view of the implications of the Garrett rule, the law is confounded; thus, a continued blind ob......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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