Reporter’s Notebook : Jury pool included those with dicamba complaints

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The Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Johnathan Hettinger/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Editor's note: German agribusiness companies Bayer and BASF face allegations in a civil lawsuit that they created circumstances that damaged millions of acres of crops by the weed killer dicamba in order to increase profits from a set of new dicamba-related products offered for sale beginning in 2015.

A trial of the lawsuit, originally filed in November 2016 by southeastern Missouri peach farmer Bill Bader, began Jan. 27, 2020, and is expected to last two to three weeks. The lawsuit initially named Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer in 2018.

The following is a free preview of the day's outtakes, which will be made available each day of the trial to paid subscribers of the project. Learn more here.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - With Monsanto being based in St. Louis and agriculture being the dominant economic industry in southeastern Missouri, the court called a larger-than-normal jury pool for the district, said U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh. 

During voir dire, or jury selection, 43 people were interviewed, and 13 were eliminated for cause, including health issues, business obligations and knowledge about dicamba. 

One potential juror, the wife of a farmer, said that they thought their crops had been damaged by dicamba, and another said she lives in the country and had her property damaged by the weed killer.

Two other farmers’ wives also said they had heard about issues with dicamba, while multiple other potential jurors were truck drivers who had worked with Monsanto and BASF.

A few jurors said they had heard about issues with dicamba in the news.

One juror said that he had read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story (which was written by the Midwest Center) on the Saturday before the trial. 

Judge Stephen Limbaugh said he, too, had read the story, and he found it to basically be the same as the summary read to jurors.

“There were a few other sentences, too,” the potential juror replied.

Limbaugh laughed and said he did not find it to be prejudicial, but the juror said he did not feel he could be fair to both sides.

The final jury included four women and four men.

Gag order issued

Don’t expect to hear from Bayer, BASF or Bader Farms throughout the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh put a gag order on the lawyers, after Jan Paul Miller, the lead attorney for Monsanto, pointed out that one of Bader Farms’ attorneys shared news stories, including our work and the work of St. Louis Public Radio, on social media. 

Billy Randles, lead attorney for Bader Farms, pointed out that the stories are in the public domain. He then asked that if Limbaugh put a gag order on the lawyers, he also put one on representatives of the company, as Bayer had public relations officials in Cape Girardeau.

Kyel Richard, product communications lead for Bayer, happened to be seated next to the Midwest Center and St. Louis Public Radio in the courtroom and said he will no longer communicate with reporters throughout the trial.

Richard did sit next to the reporters again in the afternoon, however, even when they moved across the courtroom.

Ties to Rush Limbaugh

The Limbaugh family has a large influence in Cape Girardeau, it seems.

In the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, the federal courthouse is named the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse, after his grandfather, Limbaugh Sr.

Limbaugh Sr. lived to be 104 years old and practiced law in Cape Girardeau until he was 102.

Judge Stephen Limbaugh, who is presiding over the case, is the first cousin of Rush III and Limbaugh Sr.’s grandson.

The courthouse oversees the Mississippi River. It was dedicated to Limbaugh Sr. in 2007, 11 years after his death.

Tuesday’s witnesses

The trial will continue Tuesday morning with testimony expected from Steve Smith, director of agriculture for Red Gold Tomatoes, and Dr. Boyd Carey, a former Monsanto and current Bayer employee.

Smith was once a member of Monsanto’s dicamba advisory council and warned that if dicamba was sprayed, specialty crop farmers, including fruit and vegetable farmers, would have a hard time competing in the Midwest.

Billy Randles, the lead attorney for Bader Farms, used Carey’s emails and expected testimony significantly in his opening argument, including what he’ll have to say about Monsanto’s expectations of dicamba to drift.