Guzman v. Amvac Chemical Corporation
This case sought to hold the manufacturer and distributor of the pesticide Phosdrin accountable for the poisoning of three farmworkers. The lawsuit, filed in September 1995 in federal district court in Spokane, Washington, was resolved on the eve of trial in May 2002. During its seven-year pendency, it exposed outrageous conduct by Amvac and won an important Washington Supreme Court decision enhancing consumers’ and workers’ rights.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit certified two questions of state law to the Washington Supreme Court. The first question was whether a plaintiff may rely on an alternative product to prove a design defect under the “risk-utility” test of Washington product liability law. The second was whether a pesticide can be an “unavoidably unsafe product” as described in Comment k to the Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A. As urged by plaintiffs, Washington’s high court answered the first question affirmatively. The court ruled that “a plaintiff may satisfy the requirement of showing an adequate alternative design by showing that other products can more safely serve the same function as the challenged product.” On the second question, the court held that a pesticide can be an unavoidably unsafe product, but only “if its utility greatly outweighs the risks and utility of the pesticide.” Based on those answers, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Amvac on one of plaintiffs’ design defect claims.
Richard Eymann, of Eymann, Allison, Fennessy, Hunter & Jones, and Marcia Meade, both of Spokane, were co-lead trial counsel. Co-counsel were Eugene Moen and Michael Withey, both of Seattle, and Public Justice’s Adele Kimmel. Paul Stritmatter of Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Coluccio in Hoquiam, Washington, argued the appeal before the Washington Supreme Court. Appellate co-counsel were Brent M. Rosenthal of Baron & Budd in Dallas and Patti A. Goldman of Earthjustice in Seattle.