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Canker lawsuit moves forward

Cape plaintiffs want more cash for trees

Sep. 27, 2005


• Canker is a contagious bacterial disease that is harmless to humans and animals.

• The disease seriously weakens citrus trees. It also blemishes fruit. The disease is considered a major threat to the state's citrus industry.

• Key lime and grapefruit are most susceptible, but no citrus variety is immune.

• There is no known cure for canker. Trees are burned on site in commercial groves, and they're cut down and removed in residential areas.

• Citrus canker costs the Florida Industry about $2 million each year.

• State officials have chopped down more than 2.4 million commercial trees and 650,000 residential trees throughout Florida since 1995.
SOURCES: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Citrus Mutual


Thousands of Lee County residents could get more cash for their chopped citrus trees, thanks to a judge's decision to OK a canker-related class-action lawsuit.

The case could go to trial within the next year or two, attorneys for both sides said.

The seven Cape Coral residents who filed the suit said the state doesn't pay people enough for their chopped trees.

The plaintiffs' attorneys announced the class-action decision Monday. Circuit Judge William McIver certified the case Thursday.

"I am absolutely elated," said plaintiff Dee Klockow, who hadn't heard about the decision Monday. "This gives me confidence in the legal system."

Klockow said she didn't file the lawsuit for personal gain. She and her husband lost five citrus trees in early 2003.

"This is for everybody," she said. "This is for the whole county.

"It doesn't matter if we only get 10 cents. That's not the point."

Lee residents already get a $100 Wal-Mart voucher for their first tree chopped by state chain-saw crews, plus $55 for every tree after that.

However, the state agriculture department recently ran out of money for the voucher program, leaving about 7,000 county residents without vouchers. There is still about $5.3 million left in the cash program. Spokeswoman Liz Compton said she hopes the state Legislature approves more funding for the program.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Robert Gilbert, wants the Florida Department of Agriculture to pay an average of $750-$1,000 for each tree.

The class-action lawsuit only covers healthy, "canker-exposed" trees that stand near canker-infected trees. State crews chop down those trees, also, to stop the spread of canker.

The contagious bacterial disease first appeared in southeast Cape Coral in 2002. Since then, crews have cut more than 32,000 trees in Cape Coral, Pine Island and Fort Myers. Most of those are healthy residential citrus trees.

Lee residents at about 12,000 homes and businesses automatically become part of the lawsuit.

Not all of them, however, are thrilled by the idea.

"I think it would be nice if we could get some extra money," said Gloria Jokie, 65, of North Fort Myers. "But this (canker eradication) is something that has to be done. It's not the state's fault that canker came."

Jokie who lost three healthy citrus trees in February called the plaintiffs whiners who should have let things be.

"Get over it," she said. "They don't owe you anything."

Canker doesn't hurt humans, but it leads to blemished fruit, weakened trees and premature fruit drop. It's considered a serious threat to Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.

In May, Judge McIver heard arguments from the state agriculture department and the plaintiffs' attorneys.

In his ruling Thursday, McIver wrote that it makes more sense to have one large class-action suit than potentially thousands of individual suits clogging up the courts.

Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the agriculture department, said the plaintiffs will have a hard time calculating values for the trees.

One tree could be exactly the same age and height as another, but the first tree might have been cared for much better. "Does that tree have the same value that the other does?" he asked.

Plaintiff's attorney Gilbert said he was pleased with the ruling. "We believe it's the right decision."

Plaintiff Ray Dellaselva of Cape Coral said he won't get much money for his trouble. He only lost one tree.

"For them to come in and say, 'OK, we're going to take your tree and we're not going to compensate you' it's just too much control," Dellaselva said. "It's the principle."

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