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Que. court approves Ridley BSE settlement

The Quebec Superior Court has approved Winnipeg feed maker Ridley Inc.’s proposed $6 million settlement of four proposed class-action lawsuits by cattle producers.

“While affecting only the Quebec lawsuit, the Quebec court’s order is a significant step toward final resolution of the pending BSE cases against Ridley,” the company wrote in a release Thursday.

Ridley has been defending the four co-ordinated lawsuits since they were filed in April 2005 by cattle producers in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario. Cattlemen in other provinces were to be covered by the Ontario “class.”

The company, whose Australian owner recently put its majority stake in Ridley Inc. up for sale, announced in February that it would settle the suits.

The suits had named both Ridley and the federal government, claiming potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in damages as a result of international bans on trade in Canadian beef after the May 2003 discovery of Canada’s first confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Negligence, the suits had alleged, led to contaminated feed that in turn infected the Alberta cow.

The Quebec suit, filed with cattleman Donald Berneche of St-Gabriel de Brandon as its representative plaintiff, was authorized as a class action last June. None of the remaining actions have yet been so authorized.

The settlement, if approved by all parties, will see Ridley pay $6 million into a settlement trust fund that caps its exposure to the plaintiffs’ claims. Individual cattle producers could still formally opt out of the settlement and try to sue Ridley on their own, but Ridley will pay out the settlement only if the number of opt-outs stays below an agreed level.

Meanwhile, lawyers in the Ontario suit, filed by Niagara Falls cattleman Bill Sauer, have applied to that province’s Superior Court of Justice for approval of the settlement agreement, under which Ridley would consent to thre suit’s certification as a class action. The Ontario hearing is scheduled for June 9, Ridley said in its release.

Pending approval in Ontario and “any directions from the Alberta court,” the settlement will then be finalized, Ridley said.

Details have yet to be finalized on who would be eligible to collect from the fund — and on how they would collect.

Ridley said again Thursday that it still expects to be involved in the court cases, in that the cases will continue with the federal government as their remaining defendant.

Ridley’s proposed settlement includes no admission of any liability and the company said again it will contest any allegation that it was responsible for the damages in question.

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