Florida Faces $1.2M Verdict for Killing Citrus Trees

State agriculture officials were trying to halt the spread of costly tree diseases.

Orange blossom and fruit in a grove in Plant City, Fla., Dec. 11, 2013.
Orange blossom and fruit in a grove in Plant City, Fla., Dec. 11, 2013.
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The owner of a commercial nursery has won a $1.2 million judgment against the Florida Department of Agriculture in the latest verdict against the state agency for destroying citrus trees in the 2000s during an attempt to stop the spread of costly tree diseases.

A jury in Orlando last week determined the state agency had destroyed more than 160,000 citrus plants in an effort to stop citrus greening and Gary Mahon deserved the $1.2 million as compensation at fair market value. Mahon's company, Pokey’s Lake Gem Citrus Nursery, cultivates fruit trees in Zellwood, Florida.

The Department of Agriculture had argued Mahon did not deserve compensation since he could have avoided his losses by moving his citrus plants into greenhouses. Mahon's attorneys disputed that interpretation of the law.

In 2008, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring citrus plant growers to sell or destroy plants not grown in greenhouses to protect the state’s citrus industry from citrus greening. Citrus greening is among the biggest threats to the U.S. citrus industry since infected trees produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter. The disease can eventually kill infected trees, though it is harmless to humans.

“While the Florida Legislature and Department of Agriculture meant well by passing and enforcing this law, it had a catastrophic impact on citrus nursery growers," said Alexander Clem, Mahon's attorney. “Our client fought for years to get justice for the thousands-upon-thousands of plants he was forced to destroy, and we are thrilled he will be compensated and can move on with his life.”

In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said Wednesday that it would appeal the case.

“This case has been long fought by our department, and our position has not changed: the damage to Mr. Mahon’s citrus crop was a direct result of his failure to come into compliance with state regulations," the statement said.

In the past two decades, Florida's citrus industry has been threatened with greening and another disease called citrus canker. Citrus canker can cause the leaves and fruit on citrus trees to drop prematurely and create unappealing lesions on the fruit. The lesions leak bacterial cells that can spread to other trees by wind, rain or contaminated equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With both diseases, state agriculture workers destroyed citrus trees in an effort to stop their destructive spread.

Earlier this year, about 18,000 homeowners in Orange County, home to Orlando, won a judgement of $42 million against the state for destroying their citrus trees.

Tens of thousands of homeowners in Broward, Lee and Palm Beach counties also have won class action lawsuits against the state over their destroyed trees, and compensations varied by county. A case in Miami-Dade County is still pending.

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