Punitive Damages Sought in Idaho Grass Burning Suit
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho – A group of Idaho residents seeking to end grass burning have asked the court to include punitive damages as part of their claim against grass farmers, a move that will raise the stakes in the legal battle.
According to Idaho law, punitive damages can only be included in a suit with a judge's approval. If approved, the motion will allow a jury to decide the amount of punitive damages against the grass farmers, if any, should the case move to trial.
"The court has stated in its rulings that there is little doubt the archaic practice of field burning is having a devastating impact on these people," said Steve Berman, an attorney from the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman. "This request for punitive damages is necessary to ensure that the case is successful in putting a halt to grass burning."
According to Berman, the growers themselves provided some of the evidence necessary to file for punitive damages. "Even some of the growers' expert witnesses were forced to admit that smoke from grass fields is legitimately distressing," said Berman.
The proposed class-action suit, filed June 10, 2002 in Idaho District Court, seeks to end the practice of field burning. Currently, the suit has cleared many of the objections argued by the growers, and is scheduled for a class certification hearing on January 13, 2003 in Idaho District Court.
Berman also noted that the combination of the rulings of the court to date and the grass farmers' hasty actions to burn off acreage at the end of this summer brought the evidence necessary for the motion.
"With the testimony given so far, and the opinions of the court already expressed, there is a very convincing argument for the end of grass burning in Idaho," said Berman.
Filed against the state of Idaho and 79 grass farmers and seed companies, the lawsuit claims that the smoke produced by annual grass fires used by farmers to clear fields causes serious health risks, especially to those with respiratory conditions including asthma and cystic fibrosis.
The suit cites a number of cases in which the smoke causes 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.
In addition to a complete ban on field burning, the lawsuit asks the court for a medical monitoring program for those affected by the smoke, as well as monetary damages. If approved, the proposed class-action suit would include residents with medical conditions aggravated by the smoke in Kootenai, Bonner, Benewah and Spokane Counties, as well as other areas.
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