Farmers file lawsuit

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By Bryan Marshall

Thomas Leach has raised tobacco since he was 12 years old.

But, the 41-year-old Dry Ridge resident said last year’s crop was his last.

Leach and Larry O’Neill of Dry Ridge have joined farmers Jerry Feagan and Steve Lang of Cynthiana in a breach of contract class-action lawsuit against a tobacco company.

The Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati law firm of Strauss & Troy filed the lawsuit in Harrison County on behalf of a number of Kentucky tobacco farmers against Universal Corporation, also known as Universal Leaf North America (ULNA).

“I can’t see continuing in it if they won’t honor the contract,” Leach said. “It’s just really sad. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to have to do before it’s over. I’ve got my farm for sale. I’d like to sell it. I’m not going to raise anymore tobacco, I know that.”

Universal Leaf agreed that the farmers would grow and sell tobacco that the company would then purchase.

However, at the end of the 2010 crop year at a Cynthiana receiving station, Universal Leaf unilaterally rejected the tobacco that had been grown by the farmers, according to the lawsuit.

“Before my tobacco ever came across the area where they review tobacco they said ‘We hope you have insurance because we’re not buying any,’” Leach said. “They didn’t give any specifics. They just said the higher aboves from the office said they weren’t to purchase any tobacco unless it was one particular grade.”

“I was stunned more than anything,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in the years that I’ve sold with them. I was kind of speechless.”

Leach incurred monetary damages in excess of $14,260, according to the lawsuit.

ULNA had agreed to purchase 14,250 pounds of tobacco from Leach for about $1.69 per pound.

He ended up selling 12,500 pounds of his crop at an open auction for 54 cents per pound or $6,866 total.

“You have obligations from making farm payments to paying your help,” Leach said about the losses. “You count on that check to make property taxes and for Christmas and it just wasn’t there.”
O’Neill said he received a call from the receiving station ahead of time warning him that ULNA was only accepting a certain type of tobacco.

“To me, they didn’t honor their contract,” he said. “If they would have looked at it, and stated that the quality wasn’t good, it would have been different. I had 15,000 pounds that I had to take to Lexington and sell it at a low price.”

O’Neill lost more than $17,000 in damages, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that there are hundreds of other farmers who have been impacted by ULNA’s breach of contract, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in revenues.

If any of other farmers have not had their tobacco purchased by either Universal Leaf or Phillip
Morris, they are encouraged to contact attorneys Jack S. Gatlin or Joseph Braun at (513 621-2120, or by e-mail at: jsgatlin@strausstroy.com or jjbraun@strausstroy.com or further information without any obligation or cost.

As for Leach and O’Neill, the experience has led them to decide to be finished with tobacco farming.

“I’ve retired, but I’ve always enjoyed raising tobacco,” said O’Neill, who has raised tobacco for more than 40 years. “It’s a lot of work. Of course, we’ve got to hire a lot more now. But, I think I’ll quit because I can’t take a chance.”