A federal jury in Santa Ana, Calif., has awarded more than $1 million to the owners of a California Thoroughbred breeding and training farm over a feed additive that is designed to kill fly larvae in manure.
Farnam Companies, Inc., of Phoenix, AZ, was found liable for defective design of its product, Equitrol, causing a wide variety of health problems in the horses that ingested it for long periods. Charlotte and Christopher Wrather, owners of Cottonwood Ranch of Los Alamos, Calif., and farm manager Lori Araki, brought the case.
The jury, which awarded $1,007,500 on March 25 following a day-and-a-half of deliberation, found in Farnam's favor on a second allegation, that the company intentionally misrepresented the product. U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna presided over the trial, which lasted three weeks.
The plaintiffs successfully contended that organophosphates in Rabon, the trade name for the active ingredient that killed the fly larvae, was also being absorbed into their horses' systems, causing or exacerbating health problems. Those symptoms included reproductive difficuties and birth defects, stunted and retarded growth, hyperexcitability and other neurological dysfunctions, laminitis and immunosupression.
Organophosphates depress the body's levels of cholinesterase, an enzyme that protects neurotransmitters, including the immune system, growth regulation and thyroid function.
University of California at Davis professor Dr. John Madigan, D.V.M., testified that in a study of horses fed Equitrol for several weeks there was a sharp decrease in cholinesterase levels in all cases to a level consistent with organophosphate poisoning. He also testified to statistically significant differences in behavior for horses on Equitrol when compared to a control group. His study revealed a heightened or intensified flight response among the Equitrol group.
Farnam maintains the product is safe when used as directed and will keep it on the market. It plans an appeal of the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th District, a company spokesperson said.
"Although the product is formulated to maximally pass through the animal's digestive system, like most things ingested, a minimal amount of the ingredient will be absorbed," a Farnam company statement said. "Horses exposed to tetrachlorvinphos (the active ingredient) will, therefore, see a reduction in their whole blood cholinesterase due to the plasma component of the whole blood. Both in vivo and in vitro studies have shown that this plasma cholinesterase activity is markedly more sensitive to tetrachlorvinphos and merely shows exposure to the ingredient, while blood cell and muscle cholinesterase activities were not affected. Equitrol has been on the market for more than 20 years, and has been tested and registered and re-registered with the U.S. EPA and is safe when used as directed."
However, an EPA study done in August of 2002 noted, "A weight of the evidence approach demonstrates that Equitrol is absorbed and can severely depress cholinesterase levels in horses." It suggested specific warning labels on the product regarding poisoning symptoms and treatment and its use with breeding horses.
Charlotte Wrather said she fed the product to her 80 or so horses from 1996 through August of 2000 at their 400-acre ranch, which is located about an hour's drive north of Santa Barbara. During that period she noted some odd behavior by her horses, which the Wrathers raise mostly for sport rather than racing.
"There were neurological changes in a pretty large percentage of them," she said. "It was frightening. We've got mainly backyard horses. They'd often bolt for no apparent reason with their eyes bugging. It was like they'd lose their minds for awhile."
She said she also noticed an increase in physical problems, such as leg swelling. One 5-year-old mare died after an infection. But most of all, she noted consistent growth problems in the foals.
"The effect on the youngsters was just mind-boggling, the way their growth was stunted," Wrather said. "I would go to yearling sales and come back and look at mine and wonder what was going on."
Attorneys Shannon McDonough and Don Mark represented the Wrathers for the Minnesota law firm Fafinsky, Mark & Johnson.