A French-Vietnamese journalist filed the lawsuit in 2014 against 14 firms that made or sold the highly toxic chemical for causing grievous harm to her and others.
A French court on Monday started hearing a lawsuit filed by a French-Vietnamese woman against more than a dozen multinationals for causing grievous harm to her and others by selling the chemical weapon Agent Orange to the US government, the devastating effects of which are still felt half a century later.
Backed by several NGOs, Tran To Nga filed the lawsuit in 2014 against 14 firms, including Monsanto now owned by German giant Bayer, and Dow Chemical.
"A recognition of Vietnamese civilian victims would constitute a legal precedent," said international law specialist Valerie Cabanes.
So far, only military veterans from the US, Australia, and Korea have won compensation for the after-effects of the chemical.
Millions of Vietnamese people were exposed to the poisonous defoliant, which was one of several herbicides sprayed extensively by the US between 1961 and 1971 during the Vietnam War. The chemical dioxin in Agent Orange can remain toxic in the soil for several decades after its initial use, and exposure to the toxin is associated with malformations, several kinds of cancer, neurological illnesses, endocrine disorders, reproductive disorders, heart and liver diseases, and various serious birth defects, including spina bifida.
Out of 4.8 million Vietnamese who were exposed to Agent Orange, about three million Vietnamese have been affected, are still dealing with its effects, including children born with severe disabilities or other health issues years after their parents were exposed, according to the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange.
The Red Cross estimates that at least 150,000 children have been born with serious birth defects.
Claiming no responsibility
The multinationals have argued that they could not be held responsible for the American military’s use of their product.
Ahead of the trial, Bayer said that Agent Orange was made "under the sole management of the US government for exclusively military purposes."
Soon after proceedings started Monday, lawyers for the firm argued that the court in Evry, a southern suburb of Paris, was not the proper jurisdiction for holding the trial.
Monsanto lawyer Jean-Daniel Bretzner told the court that the companies "acted on the orders of a government and on its behalf."
The US government, which claimed sovereign immunity, has not been sued for its use of Agent Orange. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that protects states from lawsuits without their consent.
Since the US government could not be expected to answer to a foreign court for its war actions, the companies should also be immune from prosecution, he said.
Three Agent Orange lawsuits have been dismissed by US courts, the most recent in 2005, a decision that was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2008.
“These decisions mean that, if these decisions are not reversed by the Supreme Court, the era of agent orange litigation has ended,” Jonathan Moore, an attorney for the Vietnamese plaintiffs said at the time.
The US has maintained there is no scientifically proven link between the wartime spraying and the claims of dioxin poisoning.
Observers said before the trial in Evry that they expected the plaintiff and her lawyers to argue that the makers of Agent Orange misled the US government as to its true toxicity.
The trial was originally due to open in October, but its start was postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“Fighting for my children and the millions of victims”
Born in 1942 in what was then French Indochina, Tran worked as a journalist and activist in Vietnam in her 20s.
"I'm not fighting for myself, but for my children and the millions of victims," said Tran.
She herself was suffering from typical Agent Orange effects, including type 2 diabetes and an extremely rare insulin allergy.
She said she also contracted tuberculosis twice and developed cancer, and one of her daughters died of a malformation of the heart.
Every year, some 6,000 children are diagnosed with congenital malformations in Vietnam, Cabanes said.