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Justices Deadlock Over Lawsuits Against Agent Orange's Makers

Vietnam veterans seek to file new claims for cancers they say were caused by herbicide.

June 10, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- In a rare deadlock, the Supreme Court said Monday that it could not decide whether it is too late for sick Vietnam veterans to sue chemical companies that made the herbicide Agent Orange.

The 4-4 vote leaves open the question of whether class-action settlements can be reopened.

In 1984, Dow Chemical Co., Monsanto Chemical Co. and several smaller firms agreed to set up a $180-million fund to compensate Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. This fund was intended to settle all claims. Payments ended in 1995.

In recent years, some Vietnam veterans with cancer have come forward asserting that they should be allowed to file new claims against makers of Agent Orange.

Among them are Daniel Stephenson, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who now lives in New Jersey, and Joseph Isaacson, a former Air Force crewman who lives in Florida, both of whom sued Dow and Monsanto. The men said their cancers were the result of exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical used to clear dense jungle foliage that provided cover for enemy forces. U.S. troops sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of South Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. Some veterans reported a variety of health problems shortly after returning home.

In the case of Stephenson and Isaacson, a U.S. appeals court in New York said the two could pursue their claims that they were wrongly excluded from the settlement fund.

The justices agreed to consider Dow's claim that the settlement could not be reopened. However, Justice John Paul Stevens, whose only son was a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer at age 47, withdrew from the case.

So, the court issued a one-line decision Monday announcing the deadlock. For now, Stephenson can continue his claim in a lower court.

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