A Teton County, Mont., jury has awarded just more than $17,000 to a rancher after the county sprayed weeds near his ranch, delaying his efforts to have his beef certified as organic.
The jury returned its verdict in the lawsuit filed by Carl “Kip” Mortenson, who said the decision will guide weed-district policy around the state.
“I hope that it helps move things forward for organic producers,” he said. “I don’t think this issue is going to go away. I think more and more people are going to switch to organics. I hope (the lawsuit) is of some service beyond my immediate situation.”
Helena attorney Norman Grosfield, who represented Teton County in the case, said the county “can live with” the jury’s decision, which was “well below the claimed damages,” of about $80,000.
For Mortenson to have his beef certified organic, he had to prove his cattle were chemical free for three years — meaning no hormones or antibiotics. Their feed must also be chemical-free.
Mortenson started the process in 2005, arranging with the County Weed Board to hand-pull weeds on his 10,000-acre ranch near Choteau.
The county sprayed weeds along a county road that cuts through the ranch in 2006 after a neighbor reported seeing weeds. The county said Mortenson failed to meet his obligation to keep weeds in check.
The county sprayed again in 2007, while legal wrangling was going on and letters were being exchanged between the two parties, according to court records.
A judge ordered the county to stop spraying weeds along the 3.5 mile road right-of-way last summer.
After a three-day trial before District Judge Nels Swandal of Park County, the jury found the county grossly negligent and awarded $17,410 to Mortenson.
Mortenson ended up moving his cattle to a 1,300-acre section of land away from the county road and fed them hay to keep the organic certification on track for his Montana Spirit Organic Ranch.
Mortenson is also seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the county from spraying weeds along the county road that passes through his ranch. Grosfield said both sides have about three weeks to file legal arguments in that case.
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