In 2002, Hagens Berman brought a class-action lawsuit against 79 North Idaho grass farmers and seed companies. Local residents claimed that the burning of the fields each year causes serious health problems, especially to those with respiratory ailments such as cystic fibrosis and asthma.
The suit also asserted that Idaho's grass burning policies are far below the standards of other states such as neighboring Washington. Farmers in Washington and Oregon use other techniques to remove grass residue from the fields, including tilling, needle nose or rotary raking, crewcut vacuuming and bailing.
The north Idaho bluegrass seed farmers burn their fields each year. The farmers claim this is necessary to clear their fields and to help the plants create new seed-bearing stalk for the next year. The alternative to the fire they say is replanting the seeds each year which is very costly.
The residents claimed that the fires contain pollutants which cause respiratory problems including damage to the lungs and throat. Last year grass-burning farmers released more than 785 tons of microscopic pollutants into the air, including concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), proven carcinogens, the complaint states.
According to the suit, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality received more than 1,700 complaints during August and September of 2001.
Experts have noted that exposure to even minimal levels of pollutants results in increased numbers of emergency room visits and hospitalizations, increased doctor visits, increased school and work absences, and decreased physical activities for individuals afflicted with cystic fibrosis, chronic heart disease or inflammatory airwave diseases, according to the complaint
The suit cites a number of cases in which the smoke cause dramatic health effects, including the case of Alex H., a 10-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis. According to the suit, Alex cannot tolerate even a minimal level of smoke pollution and according to medical experts, she suffers life-shortening pulmonary injury each time she breathes smoke from the burning fields.
The suit sought several remedies, including:
- An injunction to stop any further grass burning of the fields
- The creation of a medical monitoring and education programs to protect Idaho residents confronted with grass burning smoke every August and September.
- Damages for all members of the class with cystic fibrosis, chronic heart disease or a medically diagnosed inflammatory airway disease such as asthma or chronic bronchitis. Claimants included those who live in Kootenai, Bonner, Benewah and Spokane Counties, as well as other areas.
- Those with asthma and others harmed by the smoke from the fires will get about $1,000 apiece.
Hagens Berman waived its normal legal fees and stated its awards will be used for the high amount of court costs such as retaining medical experts. The waiver is notable because the firm had to file numerous motions and address many objections raised by the farmers and seed companies.