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Opt-out deadline set for BSE settlement

Managers of the class-action settlement between feed maker Ridley Inc. and Canadian cattle producers have set a December deadline by which cattle producers must declare if they plan to opt out of the deal.

Ridley in 2005 had been named along with the federal government and unnamed bureaucrats in four co-ordinated suits over allegations of negligence that led to the discovery of Canada’s first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) in 2003.

However, the Winnipeg-based feed company announced a $6 million settlement of all four suits in February this year, leaving the federal government as the remaining defendant.

Crawford Class Action Services, a claims management firm based in Waterloo, Ont., announced in advertisements starting this week that cattle producers who wish to opt out of the suits and settlement, for whatever reason, have a postmark deadline of Dec. 12 to notify the company in writing.

Crawford’s ad, providing full details, appears on page 23 in the Oct. 2 edition of the Manitoba Co-operator and is scheduled to appear in other publications including the upcoming issue of Canadian Cattlemen. The notice and other information on the suits and settlement are also available at the class actions’ web site.

No cash for opt-outs

Opting out will prevent a cattle producer from sharing in any benefits if the two remaining class action suits against the federal government are successful.

However, a cattle producer who opts out is then theoretically free to launch suits against Ridley or the federal government on his or her own, outside of the “class.”

The original proposed class action suits in 2005 were filed in four provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario, with cattle producers in the other six provinces included in the Ontario suit.

Following Ridley’s settlement, however, the Saskatchewan and Alberta suits were stayed. The Ontario suit is now certified as a class action, with its “class” including all Canadian cattle producers outside Quebec. The Quebec class action was previously certified on its own last year, but remains part of Ridley’s $6 million settlement.

Certification of the suits allows them to go ahead as class actions but does not by itself implicate the federal government or Ridley. Neither of the class actions against the federal government have yet gone to in court. Ridley has previously said its settlement does not mean the company has conceded the original suits’ allegations.

Lawsuit funding

Ridley’s settlement also does not mean that every cattle producer in Canada can expect to soon get a cut of $6 million (minus legal fees). Rather, Crawford said in its notice, the Ridley settlement cash will be rolled over to help fund the continuing class action suits against the federal government.

Courts in Ontario and Quebec will decide jointly how much of Ridley’s $6 million settlement fund will go to pay fees, disbursements and taxes generated by the suits’ lawyers. However, Crawford wrote in its notice, “the total amount sought and paid for class counsel fees, disbursements and taxes to Sept. 30, 2008 inclusive from the settlement fund will not exceed $1.5 million.”

The September ruling from the Ontario Superior Court, which allowed the certification of the Ontario suit as a class action and consolidated the three suits into one, described the federal government as “the party that is capable of providing meaningful compensation to class members.”

A spokesman for Crawford said Wednesday that cattle producers who do not plan to opt out of the Ontario or Quebec class actions do not have to do anything at this point, as the focus now shifts to the suits against the federal government.

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