Vietnam Veterans’ Class Action Suit for Exposure to Agent Orange

In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 597 F. Supp. 740 (E.D.N.Y. 1984)

John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand in 1961. A strategy for defeating the Viet Cong, Ranch Hand involved the chemical defoliation of jungle flora and agricultural lands. This would largely be done using an herbicide called Agent Orange—a mixture of phenoxyl compounds that, at high temperatures, can become contaminated with a carcinogenic dioxin group, TCDD. Although the potential risks of Agent Orange had been understood since the 1950s, its producers continued to use a high-temperature process in manufacturing the chemical.

Vietnam veterans filed a class action lawsuit against Dow, Monsanto, and five other companies in 1978. The 40,000 plaintiffs cited their own illnesses, their wives’ miscarriages, and their living children’s birth defects as grounds for reparations. The case’s size and complexity put litigation in limbo for several years. Hours before the matter was set to go to trial in May 1984, the lawyers reached a settlement of $180 million.

Under the terms of the settlement, the chemical companies never admitted culpability. In May 1989, the first payments went out to veterans and their families. They received a maximum of $12,600 spread over several years, while $20 million had already gone to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, experts, and court-appointed officials.