Judge Reverses Order on Farmers' Arsenic Lawsuit

A federal judge on Thursday changed his order dismissing a lawsuit by Arkansas rice farmers against big poultry producers, including Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale.

Chief Judge Brian S. Miller amended the order and judgment to a dismissal of the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs can refile the suit. The original order and judgment, entered on Tuesday, had dismissed the suit with prejudice, which could have prevented the farmers from again seeking to hold major drug companies and the poultry industry responsible for alleged arsenic contamination of their rice crops.

The farmers had filed a motion on Monday seeking a dismissal of their lawsuit without prejudice. The tactic is fairly common in complicated lawsuits because it gives plaintiffs time to marshal their resources against defendants and refile their lawsuit later.

But Miller's Tuesday order had caught some court observers by surprise. Shanelle Booker, Brian's law clerk, asked by Arkansas Business Thursday morning if the Tuesday order was a mistake, said only that it "speaks for itself." She declined further comment on Thursday afternoon after the order was amended.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs didn't respond to a reporter's request for comment.

Tyson Foods and the other defendants have rejected the farmers' claims of contamination, and the Arkansas Rice Federation has said it doesn't support the lawsuit, calling it "irresponsible."

The suit, should it be refiled, has the potential to play the state's massive rice industry against its massive poultry industry. The rice farmers claim that their use of poultry litter as fertilizer has tainted their rice crops, possibly causing major repercussions.