IDABEL — A McCurtain County jury returned a $7.3 million verdict against Tyson Foods Inc. on Friday, finding the multinational corporation defrauded a group of 10 McCurtain County chicken growers through a series of deceptive and coercive business practices.
Idabel attorney Tony Benson, who helped represent the suing chicken growers, said his clients are excited about the verdict. "I heard several comments that it was a long time coming, and maybe this will make Tyson change the way it has been treating its growers,” Benson said. Tyson officials reacted angrily to the verdict, calling the jury’s decision a "runaway verdict” and issuing a news release stating the company believes it has "strong and numerous grounds” on which to appeal. The trial, which took three weeks to complete, is the first of several similar trials targeting Tyson scheduled to take place in McCurtain County in far southeastern Oklahoma. More than 50 chicken growers initially filed a lawsuit in May 2008 against Tyson, which is based out of Springdale, Ark. The case was split into several smaller trials in an effort to keep court proceedings from becoming unwieldy. Facing more McCurtain County lawsuits, Tyson officials used a portion of their prepared statement to remind local residents of their company’s large economic investment in the county. They also warned that could change. "We are very concerned about the legal climate in McCurtain County, and we are assessing all options available to us to address this injustice and to prevent it from happening again,” company officials said. Benson said local residents shouldn’t be overly concerned. "That’s a threat any big corporation makes,” he said. "I don’t see that happening.” The jury awarded the chicken growers about $4.79 million in actual damages and about half that much in punitive damages, Benson said. The damages included $125,000 to each of the 10 growers for mental anguish, Benson said.
Mistreatment allegedIn the lawsuit, chicken growers alleged Tyson used its tremendous economic clout to coerce them into growing chickens at less than break-even costs, "driving hundreds of families into bankruptcy and foreclosure.” The growers claimed Tyson used verbal and financial pressure to try and persuade growers to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct newer-styled chicken houses. "Tyson seeks to place its growers under large enough debt loads that they will be hesitant to refuse any of Tyson’s demands, however economically devastating or unreasonable those demands may be,” the growers state in their lawsuit. They claimed Tyson punished growers who refused to upgrade by providing them with inferior quality feed and chicks, as well as paying them less for their mature birds. Growers also alleged Tyson used a secretive system to calculate how much various growers should be paid and refused to allow growers to verify feed delivery weights or the weights of the mature birds they produced for the company. "Tyson family friends, employees and other Tyson insiders have received preferential pay and treatment,” the growers alleged.
Tyson disputes claimsAmong the key witnesses were a Tyson employee who was secretly recorded in 1995 while commenting that complaining growers were being given bad chicks and a former Tyson truck driver who testified he was directed to pick up defective feed from one grower and deliver it to another grower who had been complaining, Benson said. Tyson defense witnesses denied insiders have been granted preferential treatment or that others were targeted to receive poor quality feed or chicks. "Throughout the trial, the jury was presented with a tabloid-style rumor mill of mostly fabricated evidence that had absolutely nothing to do with the plaintiffs’ claims in the lawsuit,” Tyson wrote in its news release. Tyson officials said there are 225 contract producers who raise broiler chickens for the company’s Broken Bow plant, including 79 in McCurtain County. "Our Broken Bow plant and related operations, including a feed mill and hatchery, generate an estimated annual economic benefit of $75 million,” they said.