By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida jury awarded thousands of homeowners $20.7 million in compensation for the healthy citrus trees removed from their yards a decade ago when the state was trying to stop the spread of citrus canker, their lawyer said on Thursday.
The award marked the latest in a series of class-action victories for homeowners who sued over the state's approach to containing the highly contagious disease, which threatened Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.
A jury earlier this week decided the state owed more than 18,000 Orlando-area homeowners $344 a tree. In all, 60,000 citrus trees were cut down, said Florida attorney Robert Gilbert, who has led similar class-action lawsuits in other regions.
In the early 2000s, the state uprooted healthy trees within 1,900 feet of trees known to be infected, Gilbert said, under the thinking that removal would best contain the citrus canker disease.
Other juries have also returned multimillion-dollar awards for homeowners, he said, but affected Florida homeowners have yet to see a payday.
No homeowner has received compensation from the state, which argues that the Legislature must approve payment, Gilbert said.
He said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was relying on a law passed after the state spent millions of dollars compensating commercial growers in the 1990s for trees destroyed during an earlier canker scare.
Florida officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Peter Cooney)