The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld a 2004 jury verdict awarding the city of Columbus, a south Columbus businessman and an Oakland Park resident damages totaling more than $20.7 million from continental Carbon Co. of Phenix City and its parent company, China Synthetic Rubber Corp.
The appellate court’s opinion not only affirms the compensatory and punitive damages award handed down by a U.S. District Court jury in Opelika in August 2004, it requires the Carbon black manufacturing plant near the Chattahoochee River to undertake significant corrective measures.
"The injunctive relief ordered is pretty important too," attorney Jere Beasley of Montgomery, Ala., said of the court’s opinion filed in Atlanta on Wednesday. "They’ll have to correct their problems there, and that’s very important to the people over there."
Beasley’s law firm, Beasley-Allen of Montgomery, along with attorneys Jeff Friedman of Birmingham and Eddie Jackson of Jackson, Ala., represented plaintiffs Owen Ditchfield, Action Marine Inc. and its owner, John Tharpe, and the city of Columbus.
There is still the possibility of a request for rehearing the appellate court, or an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on specific issues, said Beasley, but he discontinued the possibility the Supreme Court would take the case because there were no apparent major issues.
"The appellate court was very strong on the punitive damages aspect of the case," Beasley said. "The company really had done so many bad things and just continuously refused to comply with the law."
No representative of the Phenix City plant could be reached for comment. Calls to the Continental Carbon administration offices in Phenix City on Friday were greeted with recording advising callers to call again during business hours.
The evidence at trial showed the company, which manufactures a product used in making tires and other products, pushed its production beyond the ability of its devices to contain the carbon black without allowing it to leak into the atmosphere. Its repeated emissions drifted across the river, causing damages to the Columbus Civic Center, other South Commons recreation facilities, the Action Marine boat sales company then on Victory Drive, and to Ditchfield’s home in south Columbus.
Ditchfield, a former Muscogee County School Board member and an activist resident of Oakland Park, said he’s been waiting patiently for 2 ½ years for some finality to the case that proved carbon black emission damage to his house. He was awarded $45,000 in compensatory damages and could be in line for a portion of the punitive damages.
"I haven’t seen a penny yet, and neither have the lawyers," he said. "I’m not sure what the company will do next. They seem to be experts at stalling."
Ditchfield noted that other south Columbus residents who filed suit against Continental Carbon in Russell County Court received settlements, and that still other litigation is expected because the problem continues to plague the community.
"The problem has resurfaced," he said. "It’s sad that they’re just not being very good neighbors."
Action Marine owner Tharpe said the appellate court’s affirmation was a long time coming and he hopes it signifies the end of the case is nearer. He referred all questions to Beasley.
The company’s appeal challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury’s verdict, as well as the size of the awards.
The appellate court ruled, however, that the company was found to have knowingly and repeatedly polluted the air and caused the damages found by the jury. It said the plant’s actions and inactions were "Exceedingly reprehensible"
"… The events at issue spanned more than five years and Continental continued its course of action and inaction undeterred by both the prospect and the reality of litigation," the court said.
"The evidence also demonstrated Continental’s willingness to elude accountability," the judges wrote.