The lawyer representing Pine Island Farms, Greg Gaebe, focused in his opening on the issues directly involving the spraying portion of the case, because that was the portion that dealt with the farmer. The three questions he posed in the courtroom that morning were:
1. Did Pine Island Farms have a spray rig at the field in question on November 1 or 2, 1989?
2. Was the tractor on the spray rig positioned in the manner described by Mrs. Castillo?
3. Was Mrs. Castillo drenched with Benlate
Gaebe’s contention was that their evidence would show the answers to all three of those questions were a resounding no, no, and no.
He claimed their evidence would show that Pine Island Farms did not have Benlate, did not use Benlate, and did not purchase Benlate that farming season until December 19.
He also stated that their evidence would show they did not use Benlate and had no reason to use Benlate on the first or second of November in that particular field. Gaebe then explained to the jury that Pine Island Farms didn’t own the land they farmed—they leased it.
As I listened to his opening, all I could think was, “Who cares who owns the land?” It had no relevance to the liability in the case. What he was attempting to show was that the farm operated as a commercial farm. Their primary business was growing tomatoes on what they referred to as commercial fields.
They had to plan ahead of time what would be planted in each field. As part of their everyday operations, they had several U-Pick farms, which are different from commercial fields. The primary crop of the U-Pick fields was strawberries.
This commentary about what type of field they were spraying—commercial or U-Pick—was a lame attempt to divert the jury’s attention from what was important in the case. They used Benlate regardless of who was purchasing their crops.
According to Gaebe, every year at Pine Island Farms, strawberry season started in the middle or end of August. The farmers would come back and fix their equipment, getting it ready for the new season to begin. They wanted to farm through the winter so their produce would be available in the proper market conditions. To take advantage of the tropical climate in Florida, they grow fruits such as tomatoes and strawberries when they cannot be grown in other parts of the country.
To get the soil ready, a farmer has to disk the ground, which involves tilling the earth. This process also removes weeds that may have grown over the summer. Disking essentially prepares the field to be planted, and, depending on the ground height and the soil configuration (meaning how much rock, coral, or other debris is present), a farmer may have to disk the land three or more times to get it ready for the planting process.
After disking the field, the farmer will use a special piece of equipment to mark the rows. If you laid down on the ground and looked at the field, you would see that the beds are higher than the ground in between the rows, giving the land a slightly rippled appearance. Once the field has been configured in this way, the farmer fertilizes it and lays down plastic.
This process is known as laying granular fertilizer. It is called 6:12:12 to reflect the proportionate amounts of potassium, magnesium, and nitrogen the fertilizer contains. All the fields that are being prepared for planting are treated the same way and at the same time up to this stage. After the plastic is laid, methyl bromide is put down. If you’ve ever had your house tented, you will recognize this as a similar process, whereby the chemical seeps into the ground and sanitizes the earth, killing roundworms, insects, and other pests. After this is done, the farmer needs to wait ten days to two weeks before planting.
Tomatoes are usually the first crop to be planted, followed by strawberries at the U-Pick fields. In this case, Gaebe told the jury that tomatoes were planted in September, and they were certain that strawberries were planted at the field in question no sooner than October 25, 1989.
In my next post, I’ll continue recounting Greg Gaebe’s opening.
You can find more details about the case, and how it played out, in my book, Blindsided, from which this blog post is adapted.