Court Upholds Florida Residents’ Claims in Sugarcane Burning Pollution Lawsuit Against Big Sugar
MIAMI – A federal judge has upheld negligence, strict liability and medical monitoring claims brought by Florida residents in a lawsuit against conglomerate sugarcane growers who practice widespread sugarcane crop burning causing pollution, property damage and hazardous air quality, according to Hagens Berman and Berman Law Group of Florida.
In his July 2, 2021 order, Judge Rodney Smith of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida denied a motion to dismiss the proposed class action against Florida sugarcane growers, finding that the plaintiffs – central Florida residents who allege that their health and property are damaged by sugarcane burning – sufficiently plead claims for negligence, strict liability and medical monitoring. Defendants in the case are Florida Crystals Corporation, Sugar Cane Growers Cooperation of Florida, United States Sugar Corporation, Okeelanta Corporation, Osceola Farms Co., Sugarland Harvesting Co., Trucane Sugar Corporation, Independent Harvesting Inc. and J&J AH Products Inc.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs seek to represent a class of Florida residents from the communities of Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Canal Point and Indiantown, all of which sit in and among defendants’ sugarcane fields. If you live in an area of Florida affected by toxic smoke and ash created by the sugar industry's sugarcane burning, find out your rights »
“Today’s victory is a showcase of the power of strength in numbers: these Florida residents are successfully taking on some of the biggest food corporations on the planet on behalf of their communities,” said Steve Berman, co-founder and managing partner of Hagens Berman. “We look forward to continuing this courtroom fight for the rights of Floridians to clean air free of pollution, ash and black snow.”
In his order, Judge Smith found that the plaintiffs adequately alleged, based in part on air modeling done using publicly available data, that particulate matter and pollutants generated by sugarcane burning could be plausibly traced to each defendant: “…when considered with the other allegations…including the proximity of the burning to Plaintiffs’ properties and the air modeling based on publicly available data, Plaintiffs have adequately pled standing as to harm from particulate matter and other pollutants.”
“The Florida legislature recently passed sweeping changes to Florida’s Right to Farm Act that are aimed directly at stopping lawsuits like this, so we are gratified that Judge Smith noted in his opinion that the newly enacted law will not apply retroactively,” said Matthew Moore, lead attorney for Florida’s Berman Law Group. “One can only guess what industry was pushing for those changes, but today, this lawsuit moves forward, and these communities can finally seek justice.”
The judge also upheld claims regarding the effects of defendants’ burning on residents’ property and health, finding that the plaintiffs adequately alleged exposure to greater than normal background levels of proven hazardous substances – thus significantly increasing their risk of developing lung cancer.
The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for the Florida sugar industry's actions, which have damaged the health and property of local residents. It also requests that the defendants finance a court-supervised medical monitoring program, including annual screening and testing, to facilitate early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer.
“Our law firm got its start in the 90s with a courtroom win against Big Tobacco in the largest settlement in world history,” Berman said. “Once again, we plan to take on the nuisance of smoke, this time against Big Sugar.”
About Sugarcane Burning in Florida, and the Residents Suffering its Effects
Ever year between October and March, Florida’s sugar industry burns hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane as part of the harvest process. This burning, 284,615 acres in 2019 alone, emits large volumes of hazardous ash, particulate matter, and pollutants – often called “black snow” – that covers Glades residents’ property, infiltrates their homes, and has been linked to serious health conditions, including respiratory conditions such as asthma and lung cancer.
This black snow is known to travel for miles from the area of a burn, and discolors cars, homes, and office buildings. Many local homes must be pressure washed annually, and residents’ quality of life is greatly diminished for more than half of each year. Among the pollutants released by defendants’ burning are dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, elemental carbon and organic carbon – many of which are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possible human carcinogens.
Alternative, environmentally friendly harvesting methods (often called “green harvesting”) not only exist but have been in use for more than three decades in many parts of the world – even resulting in greater yields from sugarcane fields in Brazil, where green harvesting has been mandated for over ten years. While defendants claim pre-harvest burning allows them to make more money, studies have demonstrated that green harvesting not only improves profits and yields after a brief adjustment period, but also better preserves soil for future crops.
# # #
About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm operating in 10 cities worldwide. The firm’s tenacious drive for plaintiffs’ rights has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of “Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm,” MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.
About Berman Law Group
Established in 2008, Berman Law Group has expanded to numerous offices in Florida and across the U.S., after quickly garnering a well-deserved reputation as an indefatigable and fearless defender of its clients’ rights. The firm is headquartered in Boca Raton and has four other offices in Florida, as well as offices in Atlanta, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. For additional information go to www.bermanlawgroup.com, or follow the firm on social media: @bermanlawgroup.