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In re Imprelis Herbicide Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 16, 2017




         Joseph Sebastianelli appeals the decision of the Imprelis Arborist Panel, [1] claiming that one Imprelis-damaged Austrian Pine died after inspection, that two plants (identified as Spruce Bird's Nests) that were initially classified as trees and included in his Claim Resolution Agreement should not have been reclassified as shrubs and excluded, and that he wants assurances that all future damages from Imprelis will be compensated. Because the Appeals Panel decision in Mr. Sebastianelli's case was neither arbitrary nor capricious as to their assessment of the Austrian Pine and because the Appeals Panel had no jurisdiction to extend the warranty coverage already offered under the Settlement, the Court will affirm their decision as to those issues. Because it is not clear whether the Appeals Panel even considered the classification of the Spruce Bird's Nests, the Court will remand this matter to the Panel to review that issue.


         Because the Court has written about the history of this litigation in several opinions, the following summary will be brief.

         In the fall of 2010, DuPont introduced Imprelis, a new herbicide designed to selectively kill unwanted weeds without harming non-target vegetation. After widespread reports of damage to non-target vegetation, the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") began investigating Imprelis, leading to lawsuits, a suspension of Imprelis sales, and an EPA order preventing DuPont from selling Imprelis. In September 2011, DuPont started its own Claim Resolution Process to compensate victims of Imprelis damage. Despite this voluntary process, various plaintiffs continued to pursue their lawsuits, alleging consumer fraud/protection act violations, breach of express and/or implied warranty, negligence, strict products liability, nuisance, and trespass claims based on the laws of numerous states. After months of settlement discussions, including mediation, the parties came to a settlement agreement. The details of the settlement relevant to the appeals process will be discussed in greater detail below.

         A. The Settlement

         The Imprelis Class Action Settlement ("Settlement") covers three classes of Imprelis Plaintiffs. Among the three settlement classes is a property owner class. That class includes all persons or entities who own or owned property in the United States to which Imprelis was applied from August 31, 2010 through August 21, 2011, as well as all persons who own or owned property adjacent to property to which Imprelis was applied and whose trees showed damage from Imprelis on or before the date of entry of the Preliminary Approval Order, or February 11, 2013. Under the Settlement, property owner class members who filed claims by the claims deadline would receive tree removal (or compensation for tree removal), payments for replacement trees, tree care and maintenance payments, and a 15% payment for incidental damages. The Settlement included a warranty that provided for all benefits but the 15% incidental damages award for Imprelis damage that manifested after the claims period closed but before May 31, 2015.

         Section III.C.l.a.xi. sets forth the appeals process for property owner class members who file settlement claims. See Docket No. 117-2, § III.C.l.a.xi. That provision sets the framework for the "Imprelis Alternative Dispute Resolution Panel, " comprised of three arborists - one chosen by DuPont, one chosen by Interim Co-Lead Counsel and Liaison Counsel, and one chosen by the other two arborists. The Agreement describes the Panel's role as "review[ing] and determining] appeals from the Settlement Claim Process, and decisions by DuPont relating to objections submitted in the course of the Imprelis Claim Resolution Process." The Agreement limits the authority of the Panel to "resolving questions or challenges relating to determinations of: (a) tree ratings; (b) the height, and if applicable, the circumference of trees at issue for valuation and tree care respectively; (c) the number of trees qualifying for compensation from DuPont under the Settlement Claim Process; (d) whether a Class Member has provided adequate Spray Records; (e) warranty coverage; and (f) application of those requirements set forth in Exhibit 19 [outlining the types of symptoms found in Imprelis-injured trees and the types of evidence required for claim consideration]." Id. The Agreement also specifies that the Panel members will be subject to the Code of Ethics for Arbitrators in Commercial Disputes and that the evidence they consider must be that presented by the parties. In the context of discussing Panel review, the Agreement states that "Any Party maintains its rights to seek review from the Court." Id. The Agreement does not set forth the standard of review to be applied by the Court in reviewing Panel determinations. The form filed by claimants appealing Panel decisions limits Court review to the record submitted to the Panel.

         On February 12, 2013, this Court preliminarily approved the Settlement, and on September 27, 2013, the Court held a Final Fairness Hearing to determine whether the Settlement provided fair, reasonable, and adequate compensation to class members. On October 17, 2013, the Court granted the Class Plaintiffs' Motion for Final Approval of the Settlement. The Order entering final judgment as to the Settlement states that class members are "permanently enjoined and barred from instituting, commencing, or prosecuting any action or other proceeding asserting any Released Claims, against any Releasee ... by whatever means, in any local, state, or federal court, or in any agency or other arbitral or other forum .. .." February 5, 2014 Order, Docket No. 274, ¶ 7. The Court also retained exclusive jurisdiction over any action relating to the Settlement:

Without affecting the finality of this Order, the Court shall retain jurisdiction over the implementation, enforcement, and performance of the Settlement Agreement, and shall have exclusive jurisdiction over any suit, action, motion, proceeding, or dispute arising out of or relating to the Settlement Agreement or the applicability of the Settlement Agreement that cannot be resolved by negotiation and agreement by Plaintiffs and DuPont.

Id. at ¶ 11.

         B. Joseph Sebastianelli's Appeal

         After a site visit to examine Imprelis-damaged plants on Mr. Sebastianelli's property, a DuPont inspector concluded that one Austrian pine sustained Imprelis damage and should be rated as a 2, warranting tree care compensation. The inspector also identified two "Spruce Bird's Nests" as trees that were damaged by Imprelis exposure. Mr. Sebastianelli then objected to the Claims Resolution Agreement, at which time DuPont reassessed the claim in full and determined that the "Spruce Bird's Nests" were shrubs, not trees, and removed them from the settlement offer. Mr. Sebastianelli appealed both the rating of the Austrian Pine tree, which he claimed deteriorated significantly after it was initially rated and eventually died, and the classification of the two Spruce Bird's Nests as shrubs rather than trees. The Appeals Panel denied his appeal in full.

         Legal ...

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