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Vietnamese agent orange suit fails in US

HANOI - Vietnam's government spokesman Saturday said a US court's dismissal of a suit by Vietnamese against the manufacturers of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange was "unjust and wrongful".

Several dozen Vietnamese plaintiffs brought the suit against nearly 30 US chemical companies involved in manufacturing Agent Orange, which US forces sprayed from airplanes to clear away jungle foliage during the Vietnam War. The defoliant contained the toxic chemical dioxin, which the plaintiffs said had caused them to suffer from cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses.

The decision Friday by the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld a 2005 verdict throwing out the suit. The court said the plaintiffs had failed to establish that their illnesses had been caused by dioxin from Agent Orange. It also said that because the defoliant had been used to clear vegetation, and not as a weapon against troops or civilians, its use had not violated international law. Vietnamese government spokesman Le Dung said the Vietnamese people were "very discontented" with the verdict. "It is a pity that the US Court of Appeals issued such a verdict, when the US government had been making efforts to cooperate with Vietnam to heal the consequences caused by Agent Orange," Dung said.

As US-Vietnamese relations have improved in recent years, the US has funded limited projects to assess the presence of dioxin in Vietnam and to clean up some acknowledged Agent Orange "hot spots". In 2007, the US Congress appropriated 3 million dollars for studies and cleanup efforts, including sealing polluted soil at the former US airbase in Danang, where Agent Orange spillage led to heavy dioxin contamination. Previously, the US had maintained that studies linked dioxin to only a few diseases, and that there is insufficient evidence to claim that illnesses found in Vietnam are the result of Agent Orange. Vietnam asserts that millions of its citizens suffer from Agent Orange-related illnesses and birth defects.

At a meeting earlier this month of the US-Vietnam Agent Orange Working Group, a non-governmental initiative, scientists said the links between Agent Orange and illness were becoming clearer over time. "The fact is that most of the science now is showing that there are some diseases, and particularly cancers, that have some linkages," said Dr. Vaughan Turekian, an environmental chemist at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "What that says is, independent of the birth defects, it's necessary to clean up the mess."

Deutsche Presse Agentur - February 24, 2008.

US court upholds dismissal of 'agent orange' suit

NEW YORK - A federal appeals court upheld on Friday the dismissal of a civil lawsuit against major U.S. chemical companies brought by Vietnamese plaintiffs over the use of the defoliant "agent orange" during the Vietnam War. The ruling, handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, concluded the plaintiffs could not pursue their claims against Dow Chemical Co, Monsanto Co and nearly 30 other companies. The lawsuit contended agent orange caused ailments, including birth defects and cancer.

A U.S. District Court judge in Brooklyn, New York ruled in March 2005 that the plaintiffs failed to show that use of agent orange, a plant killer supplied to the U.S. military in Vietnam, violated a ban on the use of poisonous weapons in war and that the lawsuit did not prove the plaintiffs' health problems were linked to the chemical.

"Although the herbicide campaign may have been controversial, the record before us supports the conclusion that agent orange was used as a defoliant and not as a poison designed for or targeting human populations," Judge Roger Miner wrote for the three-judge appeals court panel.

The court also upheld two other agent orange rulings, including one in a case that was brought by veterans and their families who said their health problems did not become apparent until after a 1984 class-action settlement was reached with a group of veterans. In that case, the Second Circuit found that, as government contractors, the chemical companies could be shielded from liability. "These decisions mean that, if these decisions are not reversed by the Supreme Court, the era of agent orange litigation has ended," said Jonathan Moore, an attorney for the Vietnamese plaintiffs.

He said his clients were "deeply disappointed" in the ruling and would appeal. The Vietnamese plaintiffs contended that the chemical makers were directly accountable for providing the U.S. military with agent orange, which got its name because it was stored in large drums marked with orange bands. U.S. warplanes dropped about 18 million gallons (68.1 million liters) of the defoliant, also known as dioxin, on South Vietnam for most of the 1960s to destroy large areas of vegetation. The United States has maintained there is no scientifically proven link between the wartime spraying and the claims of dioxin poisoning by more than 3 million people in Vietnam. The U.S. government, which claimed sovereign immunity, was not sued.

The plaintiffs had sought class-action status for millions of Vietnamese people in a case that, if successful, could have resulted in billions of dollars in damages and the costs of environmental cleanup in Vietnam. "We are pleased with the court's decision," said Chris Huntley, a spokesman for Dow Chemical. "We have long held the view that issues related to war-time activities should be addressed by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments." Monsanto said that "as we have always maintained, issues related to the military's use of agent orange during the Vietnam War are best left to the appropriate governments to discuss and resolve."

In 1984, seven chemical companies, including Dow and Monsanto, agreed to a $180 million settlement with U.S. veterans who claimed that agent orange caused health problems.

By Martha Graybow - Reuters - February 22, 2008.