Defending Monsanto

David Snively doesn’t mind the stress

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - September 2009 — September 2009

Monsanto Co. will always have its antagonists. That means David Snively will always have his, too. As senior vice president, secretary and general counsel of the agricultural biotechnology giant, he is conditioned to the pressure that comes with the job. “Monsanto is a place for those who thrive on the cutting edge,” Snively says. “One of the first questions I ask in an interview is, ‘Can you handle the stress?’ Working for Monsanto is no easy retirement route. To survive you need to stay healthy, physically fit and maintain a therapeutic sense of humor.”

Snively started at Monsanto in 1983, when the company was working out settlements following its Agent Orange litigation. Soon after, he directed the defense over the alleged dioxin poisonings in Kemner v. Monsanto, the longest civil jury trial in U.S. history. Today he oversees all legal matters, including the patent infringment cases against farmers around the world.

It’s intense work, but it’s nearly all Snively knows. “I grew up here,” he says. “It’s where I got my feet wet. It’s where I learned to practice law.”

 

His upbringing did not necessarily point to such a path. Growing up in Logansport, Ind., Snively found inspiration in Chicago Cubs baseball star Ernie Banks. “I liked Mickey Mantle, too,” he says, “but Ernie was such a terrific gentleman, always positive and encouraging. He liked to help people whenever he could. Coming from a big family, I could relate to that.”

When his mother remarried, she moved the new family—all seven children—to the nearby city of Kokomo. “This was automobile manufacturing country,” Snively says. “My mother worked on the assembly line at a Delco Electronics battery plant for 30 years. Despite the demands of this career, she got supper on the table every evening at 6 o’clock. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to grow up in an orderly, structured, affectionate household.”

As a high school student, Snively showed a talent for debate. Later, while at Ball State University in Indiana, he decided to become a trial lawyer. He was the first in his family to finish college and pursue a career in law. “I knew when I grew up that I wanted to help people,” he says. “I thought about being a teacher, a minister, or doing social work, but it was the law that held out the most promise.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Indiana University School of Law in 1979, Snively took a position at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, where he handled product liability cases. “Right out of the chute I was representing clients in trial,” he says.

Four years later, Monsanto recruited him.

Upon his arrival, he assisted with the Agent Orange settlement proceedings—the litigation predates his tenure—which allocated $180 million to Vietnam War veterans. “I have great respect for veterans and the decisions by the U.S. government to protect troops,” he says. “Successfully representing the company for its role in producing materials at the government’s request requires a careful balance of the different interests of the parties involved.”

Soon after, he presided over Kemner v. Monsanto, which began in February 1984 and ended in October 1987. A group of plaintiffs sued the company after a 1979 chemical spill in Sturgeon, Mo., claiming they were poisoned by dioxin. Monsanto asserted that because the toxicant was present in low amounts, it was not enough to harm the plaintiffs.

Snively presided over every aspect of the company’s defense, including the successful appeal that overturned $16.25 million in punitive damages. Ultimately, the parties called nearly 200 witnesses and spent more than 600 days in court. The length of the trial, Snively says, “illustrates Monsanto’s ethical core, namely that the company will go to any length to prove that it has done nothing wrong.

“The Kemner case against Monsanto,” he adds, “was totally without legal merit.”

In 2002, Snively handled the company’s role in a $650 million settlement to thousands of residents in Anniston, Ala., who claimed they suffered health problems as a result of a Monsanto factory leaking PCBs into the local water from 1929 to 1971.

“Monsanto was a legal entity at that point in time [during the case] and was not involved as a chemical company,” he says. “It was a multi-party settlement.”

 

At the turn of the century, Monsanto spun off its chemical operations and rebranded itself as a life sciences company. “We made a critical culture change to make the company more efficient and appealing,” Snively says.

“Like many companies, we’ve taken some missteps in the past, but we’ve taken action to be accountable and responsive as we continue to move forward.”

Now its focus is on its genetically modified (GM) plants, which it first developed in the 1980s, and other agricultural products.

“Seeds improved through biotechnology have been delivering greater yields on the same amount of land for more than a decade in the U.S.,” Snively says. “During this time, yield output per acre has skyrocketed and the use of insecticides has decreased. … Biotech crops are among the most thoroughly tested technologies in the world, and have now been planted on more than two billion acres worldwide.”

As such, lawsuits from competitors are not uncommon. In 1996, Mycogen Corp., an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, sued Monsanto for patent infringement. Snively directed the company’s defense; a Delaware jury sided with Monsanto and declared Mycogen’s patents invalid.

Robert Saylor, a veteran trial attorney with Covington & Burling who served as co-counsel in the case, describes Snively as “the best master trial strategist I’ve ever dealt with. He is comprehensively informed about a case with a steel-trap memory, which makes him an especially useful person to have along during a major trial. He is absolutely brilliant at parsing a case down to its essentials.”  

In 1999, Monsanto faced a class action lawsuit brought by six farmers who, backed by a consortium of environmental groups, accused Monsanto of failing to adequately test its genetically modified seeds. Snively describes the lawsuit—which was eventually dismissed—as frivolous.

“We are people who use these products, too,” he says. “We are not going to introduce something into the market that’s unsafe for our families.”

To date, the company has filed about 140 patent infringment cases against farmers around the world to ensure that its seeds are not stolen or reused. Save for a handful of high-profile cases, most go to settlement. “Patents are necessary to ensure that we are paid for our products and for all the investments we put into developing these products,” Snively says. “Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million per day in research and development that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers. Without the protection of patents, there would be little incentive for privately owned companies to pursue and reinvest in innovation.”

Last year, Monsanto announced its goal to double crop yields in cotton, corn and soybeans by 2030, and to do so while using one-third fewer resources per unit produced. “The world is running out of arable land,” says Snively. “To counter this, our research department created a more efficient kind of seed [to produce greater yields] whether on a few hectares in India or a thousand-acre field in the American Midwest.”

Snively recently traveled to Beijing, where Monsanto is installing its first research and development lab in China. “We already have lawyers in place there,” he says. “There are lots of laws and regulations that need to be addressed. Right now, China is spending more money on biotech development than we are. The development is government-sponsored and already under way at multiple state research universities. It boils down to this: If we don’t make a better product, they will.” 

One of Snively’s most important jobs is outsourcing, matching the right legal talent with the right legal challenge. “Monsanto is a matrix organization. Everything is connected to everything else,” he says. “We need access to the best legal minds in the world. If we can’t find the talent in-house, we’ll go elsewhere.”

Elsewhere meaning any of 100 law firms around the world.

In-house, Snively oversees 75 attorneys. “I know on a personal basis every lawyer in the company,” he says, “including those who work overseas.

“At the end of the day,” he continues, “decisions have to be made. Some are legal calls. Some are business calls. We all pitch in. We’re a flat company, not a pyramidal one.”

 

Snively’s family provides a welcome respite from work. He and his wife of 32 years, Diane Hepper, have three children: Matthew resides in Houston and works in the insurance industry; Christine lives nearby in St. Louis and works for the Regional Commerce and Growth Association; and Evan is a junior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Both husband and wife are devout Catholics: Hepper volunteers with the Right START program for the St. Louis archdiocese, and Snively is director of Life Teen Inc., a youth ministry program.

In addition to the support from his family, Snively credits his mentors, including the late Tom Scanlon, a former trial lawyer and chair of the American Bar Association; the late Allan Boyd, a former partner at Barnes & Thornburg, whom Snively remembers reciting case law from memory; and Charles Burson, former attorney general for the state of Tennessee and later chief of staff to then-Vice President Al Gore. “[In addition] I was lucky to be tutored by two outstanding speech coaches: Dr. David Shepherd at Ball State University, and Sonya Hamlin, both of whom taught me how to communicate with any kind of audience.”

The audience is often his own staff.

“I like to think that the personnel at Monsanto are agile, type-A personalities, who thrive on tension and stress,” he says. “We have a strong sense of mission. One of the reasons why people want to work for us is because they know that their efforts make a difference.

“Stress isn’t all bad,” he continues. “People need to be challenged.”

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