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$48 million jury verdict against Chilean fertilizer company survives posttrial challenge

The jury award came in a third trial over groundwater contamination from Chilean fertilizer used in the 1930s through the 1950s.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Southern California city of Pomona got one step closer Thursday to finally winning its 10-year lawsuit against a Chilean fertilizer manufacturer after a federal judge rebuffed the defendant's posttrial challenge to a $48-million jury verdict.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in Los Angeles denied the requests for judgment as a matter for law or for new trial by SQM North America, the U.S. subsidiary of Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile. The judge said the the jury's liability finding was supported by the evidence and that the damages award wasn't excessive even though the city had sought only $30 million.

The ruling will more than likely prompt another appeal to the Ninth Circuit, which has weighed in on the case already at least three times. The $48 million verdict came after the third trial over the city's claims the Chilean sodium nitrate fertilizer used in citrus orchards around Pomona between the 1930s and 50s polluted the city's drinking water system. The excessive amount of perchlorate in its drinking water requires the city to spend millions of dollars on treatment.

An attorney for SQM North America declined to comment on the ruling.

Pomona, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, has argued that several of its groundwater wells are contaminated with perchlorate, which the city says can be traced back to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, more than 5,000 miles south of California. Perchlorate salts are often used as propellants for fireworks and as a component of rocket fuel.

SQM North America has maintained its fertilizer was not used in the California city and its product was not defective.

"Pomona presented one — and only one — claim to the jury: that SQMNA’s sodium nitrate fertilizer suffered from a design defect, and this design defect allegedly caused Pomona harm," the company's lawyers attorney said in their post-trial motion. "Yet, at trial, Pomona failed to offer any evidence identifying any defect in SQMNA’s fertilizer design, much less explain how this nonexistent design defect caused Pomona’s purported damages."

The jury returned the verdict for Pomona this past September. At a previous trial in 2018, a jury had found SQM liable but didn't award any damages.

That jury found SQM’s sodium nitrate fertilizer was the source of perchlorate in Pomona’s groundwater wells, but the benefits of SQM’s product outweighed its risks when it was used in the 1940s. Pomona appealed, arguing the 2018 jury was incorrectly instructed to consider whether the company had knowledge of any product defects at the time of its use. The Ninth Circuit panel agreed,ruling in 2020 that California law requires jurors to consider product risks that were not and could not have been known.

The Ninth Circuit previously had overturned a 2015 jury verdict for SQM, finding Klausner erred by barring geochemist Neil Sturchio from testifying about new isotopic fingerprint science and limiting his testimony to an outdated 2011 report.

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