DuPont Ordered to Pay Nearly $200m in W. Va. Class-action Lawsuit

October 22, 2007

A West Virginia court convicted DuPont of wanton, willful and reckless conduct, and ordered the company to pay $196.2 million in punitive damages for its actions at a former zinc-smelting plant, where residents claimed the chemical giant had lied to them for decades about health threats from pollution.

When combined with previous verdicts in earlier phases of the same trial, the Harrison County, W. Va., jury awards against DuPont now total nearly $400 million.

Ten residents of the small community of Spelter, W. Va., sued the chemical giant in a four-part trial involving property damage claims, long-term health screenings and corporate accountability.

Florida attorney Mike Papantonio said the verdict should tell state environmental regulators and executives of DuPont, “it’s not acceptable to put profits ahead of the health and safety and the environment of West Virginia.”

“I think this is a pretty clear message to corporations – not all corporations, but renegade corporations – that believe it’s business as usual because it’s not.”

Plaintiff Waunona Crouser said the three years since the class-action lawsuit was filed have been stressful, but she never doubted the 11-member jury would do the right thing.

“They’re West Virginians and that’s how we are in the state of West Virginia. We watch each other’s backs. We don’t let people do this to us.”

Fellow plaintiff Rebeccah Morlock said she’s gone through “a lot of emotions – anger, sadness – but now I’m elated. We stopped this company from coming in here and doing this,” she said. “You can’t come here to our state and just dump your garbage and poison our kids and ruin our health and just leave us behind and forget we even existed. You’ll get punished for it.”

Crouser, Morlock and the other plaintiffs won the first phase of their case Oct. 1, when jurors found DuPont liable for and negligent in creating the waste site. They also found DuPont had created a public and private nuisance and that its pollution trespassed onto private property.

In the second phase, the jury required DuPont to provide medical monitoring for 40 years to people who were exposed to arsenic, cadmium and lead. Judge Thomas Bedell will determine how the plan, estimated to cost more than $100 million – will be administered. Bedell will also determine how the punitive damages are divided.

On Monday, jurors decided DuPont should pay about $55.5 million to clean up private properties.

Lenora Perrine, the 74-year-old lead plaintiff who sat at the attorneys’ table every day for the past month, joyously hugged her neighbors and her lawyers after the verdict in the fourth and final phase.

“I’m old and, you know, it’s not gonna affect me that much, but the little children and the young people in the communities, that’s my interest. It might not help me, but it will help them.”

“I was certain I was doing the right thing, but you never know if you’re going to win ’til the jury comes in. I thank the jury for seeing that our community was contaminated,” she said. “… I do thank God for it all.”

Perrine’s daughter, Sandy Holepit, had this to say about her approximately 5-foot-tall, white-haired mother: “Lenora Perrine is a ‘little people’ in the minds of corporate and political America, but in the minds of all us ‘little people’ – the ones who made this country – she is an 8-foot-tall American hero.”

DuPont lawyer Jeffrey Hall said he is deeply disappointed with the verdict.

“DuPont last owned this property in 1950. Forty-six years later, DuPont came back. It alone, among all the prior owners of this property, worked with the DEP, cleaned up the property, and helped the community,” he said. “We will appeal.”

Papantonio said he is confident the verdict will withstand an appeal.

He also said the verdict is a message to other industries that operate in West Virginia and may have found comfort in knowing that regulators are often closely linked to business.

“The message to other corporations is: Come to West Virginia. Do business in West Virginia … but don’t do it in the way that a renegade corporation would do it.

“This is not a message that should scare corporations at all,” he said. “Most corporations in America play by the rules. This is an exceptional situation where we had a renegade corporation that didn’t.”

DuPont general counsel Stacey Mobley said the verdict could discourage companies from voluntarily cleaning up waste sites.

“This outcome could have a chilling effect on brownfields remediation and restoration across the United States,” Mobley said.

On Friday, after the trial had ended, DuPont filed 351 documents with the court that Papantonio said would have been relevant and “extremely valuable” evidence in his case.

Though DuPont claimed it recently discovered the documents, Papantonio argued it is further evidence of its lack of honesty. He asked Bedell to issue sanctions against the chemical giant, but Bedell did not immediately rule.

“It’s new, sanctionable conduct,” Papantonio argued. “At some point I think any appellate body looking at this has to say, ‘When does it stop?”‘

DuPont spokesman Tim Ireland said the company’s attorneys will need time to review the motion before commenting.

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