Jury selection begins today in DuPont case

Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 1:09 a.m.

More than double the usual number of prospective jurors have been called to the Alachua County Courthouse this week because of an upcoming multimillion-dollar civil trial involving Florida growers, their former attorneys and DuPont, the global science company.

Jury selection starts today in the case with 700 Alachua County residents summoned for jury duty.

It's anticipated potential jurors will be asked to complete a questionnaire and advised the trial will last more than a month, prompting the expanded jury pool in what will likely be a hotly contested, complicated case.

Filed in 1998, the lawsuit alleges lawyers with the disbanded Miami firm of Friedman, Rodriguez, Ferraro and St. Louis, who represented the growers, entered into a secret deal with DuPont before reaching a $59 million settlement in 1996, and that the growers were fraudulently persuaded to settle their cases.

The attorneys agreed to a side deal with the company for $6.4 million as an assurance they wouldn't file another case involving the fungicide Benlate, the lawsuit claims.

Among those suing the company and the lawyers are Jeffrey and Susan Wagner, who owned and operated the Florida Regional Landscape Nursery in Alachua County, the lawsuit states.

The case is a twist to the years of legal battles DuPont has faced involving Benlate.

Allegations have mounted over the past decade that the chemical caused widespread damage to crops and ornamental trees and plants. In 2001, DuPont stopped selling Benlate, which it had made for more than 30 years. Although the company has denied the fungicide caused any damage, it has paid out millions of dollars in related settlements and jury verdicts.

Lawyers accused in the lawsuit have characterized the so-called secret deal as a retainer agreement, and said that without it the plaintiffs wouldn't have received the settlement. They also said that, under the deal's terms, they weren't allowed to tell their clients about it.

The settlement and the retainer came after a ruling in a Miami case involving DuPont where a judge criticized the company for destroying evidence and deceiving the court. The company pushed to keep the ruling out of the court record, realizing the information could be used against it in other pending cases.

Late last year, hearings in the pending case brought 1994 Nobel Prize winner John Nash to Gainesville.

The subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind," Nash testified about his work in the advancement of game theory, which tries to explain how individuals, corporations and governments make strategic decisions. Nash's ideas had been applied by a witness for the growers, former University of Florida Dean of Business Administration Robert Lanzillotti.

Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@ gvillesun.com.

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