Monsanto Co. polluted the town of Anniston, Ala., and should be held liable for damages, an Alabama Circuit Court jury determined Friday.
Monsanto, which spun off its chemical business into a company called Solutia Inc. in 1997 and merged with Pharmacia, a multinational drug company, in 2000, produced polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Anniston for several decades, from 1935 to 1971. Solutia acknowledged that the PCB production caused contamination in the area, but claims it acted fairly in dealing with local residents and regulators about the situation.
In this first of several lawsuits, a total of 3,500 residents of Anniston claimed that Pharmacia, Monsanto and Solutia poisoned the local air, soil and waterways with huge quantities of PCBs, causing many residents to become ill, and then tried to conceal the human health and environmental impact of the contamination.
PCB experts, including Dr. Ian Nisbet, one of the world''s leading PCB scientists, testified at trial that the Anniston PCB contamination is the worst of any PCB site in the world, including the Hudson River in New York, where the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring General Electric (GE) to dredge the river bottom at an estimated cost of over $500 million.
Attorneys for the defense argued that Monsanto did not realize at the time that PCBs were causing contamination in the area and that the company did not conceal the contamination. They said that Monsanto acted responsibly by closing the plant in 1971, several years before the federal government stopped the production of PCBs.
The jury apparently agreed with plaintiff attorney Donald Stewart, who claims that Monsanto, Solutia and Pharmacia did everything they could "to cover up the PCB problem and avoid cleaning up the mess. No one could find out the extent or nature of the contamination and what it had done to this community."
At issue in this lawsuit and others to follow are internal Monsanto documents, many marked "CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy," which indicate that the company did conceal its knowledge of the environmental impact and possible human health effects of its PCB production in Anniston. The documents came to light in recent years.
Stewart, as well as two law firms representing the plaintiffs - Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP of New York, Houston, Newark and Atlanta, and Cunningham & Fell of Louisville, Ky. - said the plaintiffs "are seeking compensation from Pharmacia and the other defendants amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars for the contamination of their homes and communities, and for the cancer, liver disease, thyroid disease, neurodevelopmental problems and severe emotional distress that have developed in children and adults, resulting from their exposure to PCBs."
PCBs are believed to be responsible for causing multiple types of skin ailments, reproductive disorders, liver disease, cancers, cerebral palsy and other diseases, although a spokeswoman from Solutia claims, "There is no evidence of long-term health effects from PCBs."
The attorneys also said the plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages arising from Pharmacia''s and the other defendants "deliberate and reckless misconduct." The plaintiffs also have requested injunctive relief from the Alabama court to require Pharmacia and the other defendants to clean up the community. The trial judge said he will hear plaintiffs'' request for such relief within the next few weeks. Should the judge grant injunctive relief, it could cost the defendants hundreds of millions of dollars.
This first phase of the trial involves the claims of 16 individual plaintiffs and one business entity. Later phases will involve the trial of the claims of 50 plaintiffs at a time.
In a statement Solutia admitted, "We are extremely disappointed with the jury''s verdict handed down today holding Solutia Inc. liable in connection with the plaintiffs'' claims linked to property damage." The company also noted "this is an interim step in a long process," which could herald the company''s intention to appeal the verdict, although no such decision has been announced at this time.
"We understand that Anniston residents have concerns about PCBs in their community," continued Solutia in the statement. "As we''ve said from the beginning, regardless of the result in this case, we''re committed to doing what''s fair to deal properly with the impacts of previous PCB production at our plant."
The company claims it spent more than $40 million in remediation activities in the Anniston community, which includes extensive sampling of waterways, public and private lands as well as property purchase programs, environmental remediation and restoration. Solutia noted it has investigated more than 8,000 acres of land and collected more than 5,000 samples of soil, water, sediment and fish. It has cleaned about 300 acres of land and more than a mile of drainage ditches, and has paid to build a new church and cleaned and improved some ball fields.
Attorney Jere Beasley is happy about the verdict. He has a lawsuit pending on behalf of 15,000 citizens in Alabama, including children with cerebral palsy and cancer. He seemed particularly pleased about one of the jury findings against Solutia, which is called a "tort of outrage."
"This is reserved for conduct that is so reprehensible that it shocks any civilized person," said Beasley. He said that a finding of a "tort of outrage" probably will result in a large damage claim against the company.
The jury meets again this afternoon to begin deliberations about damages, a process that could take a month or more.
by Sandy Smith ([email protected])