On March 3, 2023, in a major victory, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled unanimously in favor of Jackson Walker client Helena Chemical Company, reinstating a summary judgment in a lawsuit alleging that an aerial application of herbicide damaged cotton fields in Mitchell County, Texas. This appeal addressed critical issues of causation and expert testimony and set important precedent.
The case began in 2015 when a group of plaintiffs—who owned 111 distinct fields spread across miles—claimed that the aerial herbicide Sendero, which is primarily used to kill mesquite trees, damaged their crops planted in 2015 and 2016. The farmers blamed Helena, which oversaw the aerial application of the herbicide, for their lower crop yields at harvest. The 32nd District Court in Mitchell County initially granted summary judgment for Helena, but the Eleventh Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.
Drawing on the various team member expertise, Jackson Walker secured a complete victory. Jackson Walker partner Robert Soza handled both the lower court proceedings as well as argument in the Texas Supreme Court. Partner and appellate practice chair Jennifer Caughey, along with esteemed appellate lawyer Danica Milios, took the lead on the briefing in the Texas Supreme Court, including petition-stage, merits, and post-argument briefing.
As Robert Soza explained in argument and the briefs set forth, there were two fundamental reasons that reversal was required:
- The court of appeals’ decision undermined the Texas Supreme Court’s causation jurisprudence by failing to require for each of the 111 cotton fields evidence of injury, specific causation, and evidence linking the defendant to that injury.
- The opinion muddled the abuse of discretion standard used by appellate courts in reviewing trial court’s evaluation of expert testimony before allowing that testimony to appear before a jury.
The Supreme Court agreed. In its opinion, the Texas Supreme Court stated: “Other than the experts’ say-so, the record is silent regarding the extent of the causal connection between the crop damage observed by [Texas Department of Agriculture inspector Cory] Pence and the [plaintiffs] in July and the reduced crop yield several months later. This ’analytical gap’ in the causal chain between the allegedly tortious conduct and the damages suffered requires summary judgment for Helena.”
The Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ evidence of causation failed to raise the genuine issue of material fact necessary to survive summary judgment. The court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and a take-nothing judgment on all claims was rendered.
“This decision, while incredibly important to our client, will play an important role in the future in terms of admissibility of expert evidence,” Robert Soza said. “We are proud to have represented Helena in this outstanding win. It has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my career—an eight-year journey with an incredible result.”
“This decision, while incredibly important to our client, will play an important role in the future in terms of admissibility of expert evidence.”
The Jackson Walker team included Robert L. Soza, Jennifer Caughey, and Danica L. Milios, as well as trial team members Stephen Calhoun and Amanda N. Crouch, with assistance from paralegals Carey Edwards and Sherry Mathews.
The case is Helena Chemical Company v. Cox et al., case number 20-0881, in the Supreme Court of Texas. For more information about the case, visit the following articles published in the media (subscriptions may be required):
- Texas Justices Say Evidence Shortfall Kills Crop Damage Suit – Law360
- Lack of Evidence Dooms Farmers’ Spray-Drift Suit – The Texas Lawbook
- Helena Chemical Beats Cotton Farmers’ Herbicide Drift Claims – Bloomberg Law
Meet Our Team
|Robert L. Soza has significant first-chair trial and appellate experience representing plaintiffs and defendants in environmental disputes, personal injury claims, property damage claims, and civil enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Robert has ranked among Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business for Litigation: General Commercial in the San Antonio area since 2020, has been named among The Best Lawyers in America since 2021 in the areas of Commercial Litigation and Litigation – Environmental, is a Texas Super Lawyer (Super Lawyers by Thomson Reuters), and was named among the Lawdragon 500 Leading Litigators in America in 2022. Outside of his practice, he serves as Board President of the San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA) and ABODE Contemplative Care for the Dying.|
|Jennifer Caughey is a former Justice on Texas’s First Court of Appeals and current chair of Jackson Walker’s appellate section. Justice Caughey leverages her diverse experience on both sides of the bench to litigate complex cases at the appellate and trial levels. She is recognized by Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business in the area of Litigation: Appellate – Texas, among Thomson Reuters’ Super Lawyers in the area of Appellate Law, and was one of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Litigators in America in 2022.|
|Danica L. Milios has over 20 years of appellate experience. Danica has represented clients before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fifth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, the Texas Supreme Court, and many of the State’s intermediate courts of appeals. She spent 17 years at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, where she began her career as a trial lawyer before ultimately moving to an appellate practice in the Office of the Solicitor General. There, Danica served 3 years as Deputy Solicitor General.|
|Stephen Calhoun handles a wide range of complex commercial disputes, including cases involving contract claims, real estate matters, employment and non-compete agreements, business torts, healthcare issues, insurance claims, and class actions. Stephen also defends organizations and individuals against significant injury and property-damage claims. He has been named an up-and-coming attorney in San Antonio for Litigation: General Commercial by Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business since 2021 and has been recognized among The Best Lawyers in America for Commercial Litigation since 2022.|
|Amanda N. Crouch is a commercial litigator who has achieved success before juries, judges, arbitrators and appellate courts across Texas as well as the Texas Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court. She has been essential in securing favorable results for clients on a range of matters, including general commercial litigation, collection cases, personal injury cases, probate litigation, oil and gas issues, contract disputes, environmental litigation, First Amendment and media litigation, Section 1983 claims and governmental immunity cases on behalf of cities and counties. Amanda has been recognized as a “One to Watch” for her appellate practice by Best Lawyers in its 2022-2023 editions, a “Texas Rising Star” for Civil Litigation: Defense and one of the “Up-and-Coming 50: Women Texas Rising Stars” by Thomson Reuters’ Super Lawyers – Rising Stars in 2021 and 2022, and a “Best S.A. Lawyer” by San Antonio Scene since 2015.|
Since 1887, Jackson Walker has grown to become a full-service national firm serving clients from seven Texas offices. With about 30% of the firm’s more than 475 attorneys practicing litigation, JW has one of the largest trial practices in the Southwest and has been identified among the top law firms “Most Feared in Litigation” by BTI Consulting Group in 2022 and 2023 for demonstrating a “fearless nature, urgency, relentlessness, and an aggressive strategy.” For more information about Jackson Walker’s related experience, visit our Environmental Litigation & Toxic Tort and Appellate practice pages.