Jury Declares Polluters Responsible
American Values Upheld -- Polluters Must Pay
Do you believe in the "polluter pays" principle? If not, who would you rather make pay for the costs of pollution?
Here are portions of an article from the Modesto Bee.
by Michael G. MooneyA San Francisco jury awarded Modesto more than $175 million in punitive damages after ruling three chemical companies "acted with malice" because they were aware of the potentially harmful effects of dry cleaning solvents they manufacture.
Those solvents, which contaminated the city's drinking water, contain perchloroethylene, also known as PCE, and-or trichloroethylene, or TCE. Both have been linked to cancer in people.
The jury, in a decision reached late on June 13, ordered Vulcan Materials Co. to pay the city $100 million; Dow Chemical Co., $75 million; and RR Street & Co. Inc, $75,000.
The companies are contesting the jury's verdicts, arguing that they should not be held liable for punitive damages. They also are challenging the amounts awarded by the jury, claiming they are excessive.
Last week, the same jury awarded Modesto $3.17 million in compensatory damages.
Attorney Duane Miller, whose Sacramento-based law firm, Miller Axline & Sawyer, represents Modesto, said the jury's verdicts could have statewide as well as national ramifications.
"We believe this is the first verdict of its kind anywhere to impose punitive damages on a manufacturer of PCE," Miller said Wednesday. "I don't know if this is going to lead to similar claims. Certainly, many cities are similarly affected."
Modesto City Manager George Britton said Wednesday the city would use the money to clean up PCE contamination in the ground, as well as in the city's sewer and drinking water systems.
But he expected the chemical corporations likely would appeal the verdicts. That could keep the city from getting any money for years.
"The city is very pleased that the court recognized the responsibility of the polluters and the seriousness of the pollution," Britton said.
The companies believe they shouldn't be held responsible for how the dry cleaning chemicals were used. Two of the three chemical companies facing punitive damages released statements Wednesday saying they would fight the jury's verdicts.
The four-month trial, which began in February and was filled with complex claims and counterclaims, may be just the beginning of what could turn into an even more costly and timeconsuming legal battle.
Now that the city has won its test case, Miller said he is preparing a second case on behalf of Modesto that will involve other contaminated dry cleaning locations throughout the city.
"The level of contamination and the threat to drinking water varies at these sites," Miller said.
The jury in the trial that just concluded held the chemical companies responsible for contamination of two city wells and damages to a Coffee Road shopping center.
Jurors, in a 33-page verdict form, indicated the chemical companies should have notified the city of the potential damages their products could have caused.
Modesto first filed a lawsuit against the various chemical and dry cleaning companies in December 1998. It took more than seven years to bring the case before a jury.
Some experts say PCE and TCE can cause health problems even in small concentrations. The industrial solvents can do serious damage to the body's central nervous system, experts contend, as well as to the liver and kidneys. People can ingest PCEs by breathing contaminated air or drinking contaminated water.
During the trial, Miller and Axline argued that the chemical companies said the accepted method of disposal was to flush PCE and TCE into a municipal sewer system.
The attorneys also claimed the chemical companies had recommended using distilled water to clean PCE-laced machinery. That water, too, they said, was recommended to be flushed into the city's sewer system.
During the trial, experts testified that it could cost Modesto $100 million or more to clean all the contaminated sites around the city.
Most of the contamination has been in and around Modesto's downtown business district, as well as some of the older neighborhoods, including those surrounding Modesto Junior College.
Ramifications of the jury's decision likely will extend far beyond Modesto. There are an estimated 30,000 dry cleaners around the country that use PCEs in their cleaning process.
Polluter Pays Principle Challenged
Big Polluter Is Asked to Pay
Polluters Should Have to Pay
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