OPclaimants hopes are dashed as case collapses

20 October 2000

OPclaimants hopes are dashed as case collapses

For years farmers have

claimed that their health

has been wrecked by

organophosphate sheep dip.

So why has their case


Johann Tasker reports

IT WASNT supposed to be like this. A land-mark test case involving 25 farmers and workers who believe they have been poisoned by organophosphate sheep dip has been abandoned before it even reached court (News, page 7).

The collapse of the case hinges on the failure to uncover evidence that OP dips cause ill-health. Initially, various law firms were involved in more than 60 separate actions involving OP poisoning claims. But in 1999 they were rolled together into a joint action led by Hodge Jones & Allen, a London-based firm noted as highly regarded in the Chambers Directory.

By then, a pilot study to establish a link between OP dips and poisoning was already up and running. To see whether they had OP poisoning, 25 farmers were subjected to a battery of intimate tests. These included nerve conduction analysis, bone examinations, immune testing and pyschometic tests.

Review results

Dr Sarah Myhill, a Powys-based general practitioner, was called in by the Legal Services Commission to review the results. She concluded: "Taken as a whole, if you look at all the tests done among all those farmers theres a very clear pattern that emerges which I think, on the balance of probabilities, one can say is almost certainly is almost due to pesticide or chemical poisoning."

But Dr Myhill also voiced concern about the methodology. She told FARMERS WEEKLY: "For it to be good research, first of all they should have had ethics committee approval, which they didnt have, and secondly, they should have used proper control groups, which they didnt do either…it was bound to end in disaster."

Master Miller, overseeing the case, suggested that a consultant should review the report. But in July, after seeing the medical reports, the chemical companies on the receiving end of the legal action made their move. They were convinced that the farmers had no chance of winning. Lawyers acting for the companies applied to strike-out the claim, indicating in July that they would argue in the High Court that the evidence submitted did not support OP poisoning.

Left scrambling

Hodge Jones & Allen were obliged to find more evidence before a Sept 29 deadline. But they still maintained the case would succeed. Their hopes were based partly on a 1997 case in which farm worker John Hill won the right to compensation after a High Court judge ruled that he had been exposed to OPs while working for William Tomkins Ltd.

An update posted on the Hodge Jones & Allen website in August said: "We are confident that we will defeat these applications. We have reminded the defendants that the English case of Hill v Tomkins succeeded on less medical evidence than we have put forward so far, and two foreign cases have succeeded."

With the September deadline looming, Patrick Allen, senior partner at Hodge Jones & Allen discussed the situation with his neurology and neuro-psychology advisers. They advised Mr Allen that it had become apparent that the case was likely to fail and legal aid therefore withdrawn. After the talks, he decided that the application to get the case dismissed had considerable merit. Further legal aid seemed unlikely.

He admitted: "We have not been able to find the evidence to prove the link between their symptoms and organophosphates in sheep dips. In view of the difficulties with the evidence and the small numbers of cases in the group, we are not able to justify the further expenditure of public funds by the Legal Services Commission on this group action".

Mr Allen is adamant that the collapse of the case does not mean the end of all OP litigation. Cases still under investigation may eventually succeed, particularly where there has been an acute exposure followed by severe symptoms of poisoning and long term health effects, he said.

But this means that farmers may be faced with the difficult task of proving that their sickness has been caused by a specific OP used at a specific time. According to Mr Allen, however, if such research is forthcoming claimants who allege injury from low-level exposure may be able to claim damages.

What happens next is unclear. The failed joint action has swallowed up at least £2m of taxpayers money in legal aid. Because fighting legal action against big chemical companies comes with such a hefty price tag, only two out seven farmers contacted by FARMERS WEEKLY believe they can continue the battle.

Paul Tyler MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Organophosphate Group, said there may now be a case against previous governments and their departments. Farmers were required under successive sheep dipping orders issued by governments between 1975 and 1992 to dip their sheep in approved chemicals, including organophosphates, once or twice a year.

But Dr Myhill is not so sure. She said: ""Individual farmers are the only people who lose out of this. The lawyers win because theyve had of money from legal aid, the chemical companies win because they havent got to defend their case, and the government wins because it made farmers use these chemicals and now it cant be held to account either."

Farmers claim that they have been poisoned by sheep dip.

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