U.S. firms told to pay Agent Orange claims

Associated Press
Published January 27, 2006

SEOUL, South Korea - A South Korean court ordered two U.S. manufacturers of the defoliant Agent Orange to pay $62-million in medical compensation Thursday to local veterans of the Vietnam War and their families.

The Seoul High Court ordered Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., and Monsanto Co. in St. Louis to compensate about 6,800 people. It was the first time a South Korean court has ruled in favor of people seeking compensation from the makers of Agent Orange.

The companies said in a joint statement that they will appeal the decision, which they called "contrary to the overwhelming weight of independent scientific evidence, which has not found a causation between exposure to Agent Orange and any serious human illness."

The herbicide was widely used to destroy jungle cover for communist troops during the Vietnam War.

South Koreans, Vietnamese and many U.S. veterans later blamed their exposure to the chemical for a variety of illnesses and reproductive disorders, including miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and nervous disorders.

"It is acknowledged . . . the defendants failed to ensure safety as the defoliants manufactured by the defendants had higher levels of dioxins than standard," the court said in its ruling.

Citing a report from the U.S. National Academy of Science, the court said there is a "causal relationship" between the toxic defoliant and 11 diseases, including cancers of the lung, larynx and prostate.

The judges, however, did not acknowledge the relationship between the chemical and peripheral neuropathy, the disease most widespread among Agent Orange victims.

South Koreans made up the largest foreign contingent of U.S. allies fighting in Vietnam, contributing some 320,000 troops. South Korea lost 5,077 soldiers and suffered 10,962 wounded.

U.S. records show that the U.S. military sprayed 19-million gallons of defoliants over southern Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. About 55 percent of that was Agent Orange.

In an out-of-court settlement in 1984, Agent Orange manufacturers paid Australian, Canadian and New Zealand veterans, but not South Koreans.

About 20,000 South Koreans filed two separate lawsuits in 1999 against the U.S. companies, seeking more than $5-billion in damages. In 2002, they lost a decision in a lower court and appealed.

On Thursday, the appeals court issued a combined ruling in the two cases, awarding damages ranging from $6,200 to $47,500 to about 6,800 veterans and relatives of deceased victims.

"While we have respect for the veterans represented in this case, we are disappointed with the court's ruling, and we most certainly will take all legal avenues of appeal to have the decision reversed," the companies said.

The court, however, rejected a related lawsuit against the American companies filed by 15 children of Agent Orange victims claiming they suffer from peripheral neuropathy because their fathers were exposed to the chemical.

Peripheral neuropathy describes damage to the peripheral nervous system.

Symptoms range from temporary numbness, tingling, and pricking sensations to muscle wasting and paralysis.

The plaintiffs called Thursday's ruling "positive" and "encouraging" but not satisfactory, leaving open the possibility of appealing again.

Kim Sung Wook, secretary general of the Agent Orange-Connected Disabled Veterans of Vietnam War of Korea, questioned why the court did not find peripheral neuropathy to have been connected to the chemical when the U.S. National Academy of Science had determined it was.

"It's difficult to understand this," he said.