Jurors: DuPont acted with malice; $5M due to man with cancer
by Jeff Mordock, originally posted on July 7, 2016
WILMINGTON, Del. — DuPont acted with malice by dumping a toxic chemical from its West Virginia plant into the Ohio River, a federal jury said Wednesday afternoon in awarding $5.1 million in compensatory damages to a man who developed cancer.
The jury will meet Thursday to begin deciding the amount of punitive damages to be handed out to the plaintiff, David Freeman, 56, of Washington County, Ohio. After a five-week trial in Columbus, Ohio, a jury deliberated for less than a day.
DuPont spokesman Dan Turner declined to comment on the verdict. DuPont maintains there were only small amounts of C8 in drinking water.
Jean Eggen, a professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School, said the finding of malice and awarding of punitive damages might pressure DuPont to settle future cases. The company faces more than 3,500 lawsuits in Ohio over its alleged role in dumping C8, a toxic chemical found in Teflon, into the region’s drinking water.
“The finding of malice is an indication that other cases might result in punitive damages,” Eggen said. “That would create a lot of motivation for them to settle.”
Freeman’s lawsuit is one of six so-called bellwether cases the Wilmington-based chemical company faced over the release of C8, also known as Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, into the ground, water and air in the Mid-Ohio Valley region along the Ohio River in West Virginia and Ohio.
The News Journal documented the toxic chemical’s release from DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., in a recent series.
Clara Bartlett, the first bellwether plaintiff, was awarded $1.6 million by an Ohio federal jury. DuPont has appealed the verdict.
A second case, brought by West Virginia plaintiff, John M. Wolf, was settled earlier this year for an undisclosed amount. It was not immediately clear late Wednesday where the other bellwether cases stand.
In the Bartlett case, the jury awarded compensatory damages for her suffering, but not punitive damages. Eggen said it’s hard to know why a jury found punitive damages in one case, but not the other.
“Different juries look at evidence in different ways,” she said.
Because of the two juries differing takes on the malice issue, Eggen said DuPont may want to wait and see what happens with the other bellwether cases before it makes a decision on whether to settle the remaining cases.
“It might be premature for DuPont to rush into a settlement, but on the other hand, they may want to stop the bleeding,” she said.
During Freeman’s trial, his attorney argued the company knowingly dumped C8 into the water.
A former spokeswoman for DuPont’s Ohio River plant in Parkersburg testified she never knew of any concerns about C8 being dumped into the river when she told residents the water was safe to drink. But Freeman’s attorney showed the spokeswoman, Dawn Jackson, internal company documents and memos about concerns with C8, many of which she said she had never seen before.
Cynthia Salitsky, a spokeswoman for DuPont spinoff Chemours, said the verdict would be appealed. Chemours broke away from DuPont last year and assumed control of the Washington Works plant.
DuPont, which is the defendant in each of the cases, could ask Chemours to reimburse it for any damages awarded by juries in the C8 cases. An understanding that DuPont could require Chemours to cover the potential damages awards was part of Chemours’ agreement to split from DuPont.
Salitsky said the company might fight DuPont’s attempts to seek reimbursement, noting that Chemours could fight DuPont in court to avoid reimbursing the company.
An organization that advocates for residents in the Ohio Valley called Keep Your Promises, DuPont applauded the outcome of the case.
“Today’s verdict puts a spotlight on DuPont’s negligence and conscious disregard for the people of the mid-Ohio Valley,” said Harold Block, a member of the group, in a statement.
Block called the decision a victory for the Mid-Ohio Valley, including those who participating in a medical monitoring program. The program tests citizens who have been exposed to C8 to determine if they are developing one of six illnesses linked to the toxic chemical.
“To the extent that this is a signal of verdicts to come, this verdict alone will make the cost of DuPont’s C8 abuse skyrocket into billions of dollars, which so many residents and communities sorely need,” Block said.