A wheat field in Ontario, Oregon
A wheat field in Ontario, Oregon (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

American farmers who sued Monsanto Co. after discovering a genetically modified wheat strand in Oregon plan a “tight and aggressive timeline” to attempt mediation with the company.

More than a dozen class actions were coordinated before Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil in the U.S. District Court of Kansas. The cases allege that Monsanto, which field tested genetically modified wheat about a decade ago, contaminated crops intended for human consumption. They were filed after an Oregon farmer discovered genetically engineered wheat in his field last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not approved genetically modified wheat for sale. The discovery prompted Japan and South Korea to immediately suspend imports of soft white wheat from the United States, and grain futures prices fell.

The plaintiffs are various classes of farmers who lost money following the discovery. Monsanto has called the Oregon strand an isolated incident and has denied wrongdoing.

Vratil, who ordered both sides to meet on Monday, previously had scheduled a March 10 status conference. But on Wednesday, she canceled the hearing and stayed the litigation.

“At the Court’s suggestion, the parties have agreed to a tight and aggressive timeline for early mediation before Hon. Layn R. Phillips,” Vratil wrote.

She ordered an April 11 mediation at the Newport Beach, Calif., offices of Phillips, who served on the bench in the Western District of Oklahoma and now is a partner at Los Angeles-based Irell & Manella. The lawyers plan to come back to court on April 18.

“The parties also note that even if the mediation is not entirely successful, it should assist the parties in identifying and narrowing the issues which would aid in the development of a case management and discovery plan if needed,” Vratil wrote.

“Monsanto welcomes the Court’s direction to pursue mediation and the opportunity to work with the plaintiffs on resolving this matter,” Kyle McClain, chief litigation counsel at Monsanto, said in an emailed response to a request for comment. Representing the company is Edward Duckers, head of the litigation practice at Stoel Rives in San Francisco.

James Pizzirusso, chairman of the interim co-lead counsel team for a class of soft white wheat farmers, most of whom live in the Pacific Northwest, and Patrick Pendley, senior partner at Plaquemine, La.’s Pendley Baudin & Coffin, who represents the non-soft white wheat farmer class, did not respond to requests for comment.

Pizzirusso, of Washington’s Hausfeld LLP, is leading the soft white wheat farmer class along with Erin Comite of Scott + Scott in Colchester, Conn., and Kim Stephens, a member of Tousley Brain Stephens in Seattle.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.