Dangerous Pesticides: Indian Victims file a Civil Claim in Switzerland

9. November 2020

The use of pesticides has been the subject of much debate in recent years due to its potentially harmful effects on humans and the environment.

From a European perspective, the focus has often been on pesticide exports to developing countries which are not approved in Europe or only approved under strict conditions because of harmful substances. A problem in this context is that the pesticide users in those countries, mostly farmers in rural areas, often neither know about the harmfulness of the product and its correct application nor do they have the necessary material to protect themselves adequately during pesticide use.

Represented by schadenanwaelte, two widows of Indian farm workers and an Indian farm worker who suffered severe poisoning during pesticide use recently filed a civil lawsuit against the big Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta in the civil court of Basel-Stadt, Switzerland. They claim that Syngenta has used a product which is defective under the Swiss Product Liability Act, in particular because Syngenta knew that agricultural workers in India usually do not read the instructions on the package and therefore could not use the pesticide correctly. The Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger and the Hindu BusinessLine have reported about the claim.

In these cases, it was possible to file a claim in Switzerland since the pesticide or the relevant ingredient, respectively, was distributed from Switzerland by a Swiss company. For many other human rights violations and violations of environmental standards abroad, neither the Swiss (parent) company can be held liable nor is there a place of jurisdiction in Switzerland as these violations are committed by foreign subsidiaries of the Swiss group from a Swiss law perspective.

The Responsible Business Initiative, on which the Swiss people will vote on 29 November 2020, aims to change that. According to the initiative, companies in Switzerland will be liable for damages caused abroad by companies controlled by them in violation of internationally recognised human rights or environmental standards. Internationally recognised human rights include, for example, the prohibition of child or forced labour or of work that is harmful to health.