Judge Sides with Okla. AG on Legal Challenges to Poultry Suit

A federal judge has sided with the state of Oklahoma on several legal challenges brought by the poultry industry in an attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

After two days of hearings in federal court in Tulsa, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell on June 15 denied the poultry industry’s requests to dismiss the case on procedural grounds.

The two days of hearings “went well from our standpoint,” Edmondson said.

Among its victories, the state won a challenge to Edmondson’s contract with private lawyers that calls for them to be paid a percentage of any funds recovered should the state win its case.

Jay Jorgensen, an attorney for Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods and its affiliates, argued that the state constitution prohibits the use of contingency fee lawyers because it would create a “bounty system” whereby the attorneys’ private interests would influence their decisions.

At issue was a contract signed by Edmondson in July 2004 to employ three law firms to prosecute the case against 13 poultry companies that are accused of polluting the Illinois River watershed with excessive amounts of poultry waste.

Edmondson, who has rarely attended hearings in the case, personally argued for the contingency fee lawyer contract.

The attorney general, Edmondson said, has the authority to use the contingency fee arrangement if the office doesn’t have the resources to handle a case by themselves.

Should the state be unable to use contingency fee lawyers, it’s “entirely likely the state would not be able to continue” with the lawsuit and the pollution of the Illinois River watershed would continue, he said.

“This litigation is our last, best hope to stop it,” he said.

In other developments, Edmondson said a request by the poultry industry to draw a jury pool from outside the northeastern Oklahoma area doesn’t “make any sense” to him.

The motion filed on behalf of the poultry companies calls for a judge to seek a jury from outside the federal court’s northern district and suggests a Wichita, Kan.-based jury pool would be the most practical alternative.

Edmondson said: “I won’t say it’s the silliest motion I’ve heard so far, but it ranks in there.”

A hearing on the jury pool issue has yet to be scheduled.

Information from: Tulsa World, www.tulsaworld.com.