COLUMBUS – After three weeks of testimony, a federal court jury returned a verdict Wednesday against DuPont in the first of 3,500 cases charging DuPont knowingly contaminated drinking water supplies around the Washington Works.
Jurors awarded $1.6 million when they found Carla Marie Bartlett contracted kidney cancer as a result of being exposed to C8, a chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon at the Washington Works. Earlier this year, DuPont spun off its performance chemicals division as Chemours, which now owns the plant.
Harry Deitzler, a local attorney working on the cases, said the second of the first two bellwether cases will begin Dec. 1 in Columbus.
“DuPont’s conduct was egregious – dumping the chemical into community water sources with full knowledge that it would likely cause cancer and other diseases among the residents,” Deitzler said.
Janet Smith, a Chemours spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday that while the company is disappointed by the outcome, it did raise some issues for review in appeal.
“We will continue to defend against plaintiff’s claims in post-trial motions and on appeal,” she said. “We maintain DuPont acted reasonably and responsibly at each stage in the long history of C8, placing a high priority on the safety of workers and community members.”
Smith said the trial was the first in a consolidated group, each with individual facts.
“The remaining lawsuits (beyond the first six individual bellwether trials) are expected to be essentially inactive between now and the end of 2016,” she said. “We will continue vigorously defending lawsuits involving C-8.”
Deitzler said due to the number of cases some could be tried in federal court in West Virginia. He added rulings on matters of law in the first case set the rules for future C8 cases.
“For example, it was conceded C8 could cause cancer and they can’t change that in the future,” he said. “This is the reason for cases like this, to settle legal issues.”
Bartlett was awarded $1.1 million in damages and $500,000 in additional compensation for emotional distress, Deitzler said. There were no punitive damages awarded in the case.
Mike Papantonio, who argued the case, said Bartlett was thrilled with the verdict.
“She understands that she did good for the communities all up and down the Ohio River,” he said.
Papantonio said the jury decision was vindication for those who argued C8 is “bio-persistent,” referring to its presence in the bloodstream years after contamination.
DuPont spokesman Gregg Schmidt said the jury decision not to award punitive damages validates the company’s position that DuPont never consciously disregarded the risks to people living near the Washington Works plant.
Workers and plant officials drank the same water as residents, DuPont attorney Damon Mace told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday. Of its eight employees with cancer in 1989, only one had worked at length with C8, he said.
But Papantonio and co-counsel Gary Douglas argued that Delaware-based DuPont knew the risks of C8 for many years but showed “conscious disregard” for Ohio and West Virginia residents by downplaying or hiding the chemical’s effects on the public. Papantonio noted that the company tested the blood of those working with the chemical.
Mace told jurors the company tested the workers because they would have the greatest exposure to the chemical, which some studies showed could possibly be linked to cancer.
About 80,000 residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in 2001. It resulted in a settlement in which DuPont agreed to pay as much as $343 million for residents’ medical tests, the removal of as much C8 from the water supply as possible and a science panel’s examination into whether C8 causes disease in humans. The panel found probable links between C8 exposure and kidney cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and high blood pressure in pregnant women.
After the verdict was announced Harold Bock, an adviser to the Keep Your Promises Dupont group, issued a statement applauding the verdict.
“We at Keep Your Promises are thrilled by the jury’s decision in this case,” he said. “While this verdict is just a small step in holding DuPont accountable, it serves to vindicate all those who have been fighting for DuPont to do the right thing, a fight that has lasted over a decade.”
Dr. A. Paul Brooks Jr., also an adviser to Keep Your Promises, said he was pleased that a jury with little of knowledge of DuPont heard the facts and made the decision.
“They said DuPont is guilty of putting it in the environment and causing diseases,” he said. “They kept denying it, but now we have a jury from Ohio that never knew about it, listened to the arguments of what was known, covered up or denied, and DuPont could not defend.
“They said, ‘You are guilty and we agree that it is a cause.'”
Brooks said it is now important to get water systems filtered.
“However, the sad part is someone got sick and had a serious disease,” he said. “At least it appears the jury placed a pretty favorable statement to her. It seemed to be reasonable.”
Brooks said research shows the chemical is not biodegradable.
“Some estimates say it may be in the environment 200 years after use because it will go so deep in water tables,” he said. “When we use contaminated water in our homes, what we drink is not a high exposure, but it accumulates through cooking and washing and has a four-year half life.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.