COA affirms $2.4 million verdict for Hoosier farm in herbicide dispute

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed on Friday a more than $2.4 million verdict for an Indiana farm that suffered after its crops were damaged by plant-killing chemicals.

Brothers Robert and Mark Jones operate Jones Farms, which produces seed wheat to sell to other farms to grow. For about three years, the Jones’ learned management techniques to increase grain seed yield and other desirable qualities from Ag Alumni Seed in Evansville, an organization involved in the development of new wheat varieties.

Robert eventually licensed from Ag Alumni a Purdue wheat variety called INW0412 and later acquired sole authorization of the variety after Ag Alumni stopped producing it in 2012, which permitted Robert to continue producing and maintaining seed of that variety for sale.

Meanwhile, Jones Farms executed a promissory note with agricultural formulator and distributor Helena Agri-Enterprises at a principal amount of $1.5 million and signed a credit sales and services agreement. Both of the forms were standard forms used by Helena, leaving Robert unable to negotiate the terms of the credit arrangement.

Jones Farms also contracted with Helena to spray its fields with various chemicals that would help kills insects and help grow more wheat.

Issues arose between Jones Farms and Helena in 2013 after the farm planted 284 acres of its INW0412 wheat with intentions of a seed crop for harvest the following summer. Not long after planting, a spraying service provider used by Helena, who had been spraying herbicides the previous day, did not properly clean its tanks before spraying the Jones Farms’ planted field. A small residue of the chemicals left over was mixed in with the products Jones Farms had contracted for and, as a result, the wheat crop was damaged.

Although Robert notified Helena immediately, an agronomist dispatched to investigate later advised him not to harvest the wheat that had been sprayed. Wheat samples shipped to SD Ag Labs indicated contamination at levels “likely high enough to cause crop injury,” and Jones Farms was ultimately charged for both the solution and application that caused its crops to die.

While Robert “desperately” tried to locate more seeds of his variety, Helena later filed a complaint against Jones Farms seeking recovery, plus interest and attorney fees, for breach of the promissory note and breach of the credit sales and services agreement. It alleged Jones Farms failed to pay $1,462,569.77, which was owed in June 2014, and that Helena had extended $1,306,974.10 in credit plus accrued unpaid interest that was also unpaid.

Jones Farms fought back with a counterclaim alleging breach of contract, negligence and more, also requesting an “amount reasonable to compensate” for damages to the seed wheat crop, the subsequently planted corn crop, the farm’s ability to obtain appropriate crop insurance in the future and for the “total destruction” of its specialty INW0412 wheat strain for sales to Jones Farms’ future customers.

A jury ultimately entered a $1,297,837 verdict for Helena and a $3,699,319 verdict for Jones Farms, leaving the Harrison Circuit Court to enter judgment in favor of Jones Farms and against Helena in the amount of $2,401,482.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in Helena Agri-Enterprises, LLC, f/k/a Helena Chemical Company v. Robert M. Jones, Mark A. Jones, and Jones Farms, 19A-PL-2119, finding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the testimony of Dr. Stan Smith concerning damages from the accidental herbicide spraying, or the testimony of Joe Deford concerning the germination test results he performed on the seeds.

The appellate court likewise found the trial court did not err in entering judgment for damages in the amount awarded by the jury in favor of Jones Farms, concluding the jury award was adequately supported to a reasonable degree of certainty and fell within the scope of the evidence presented.

Additionally, the appellate court rejected Helena’s assertion that its own damages award was improper and refused to interfere with the jury award.

“We note that Helena did not file a motion for judgment on the evidence or a motion to correct error. … Even assuming that this issue is not waived, we do not find Helena’s arguments require reversal,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the appellate court. “The jury was able to consider the loan statements and individual invoices for various products which Helena presented, as well as the testimony of Helena’s director of credit, who indicated that $1,297,832.77 was the interest and principal due on June 10, 2014. The jury awarded $1,297,837 to Helena in damages, which we conclude was within the evidence presented.”

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