Judgment Day in Signt: Court Case Against Monsanto Co. Begins Monday

posted on:
January 6, 2002

author:
Elizabeth Bluemink

category:
Environmental

The case has been more than seven years in the making.

At times acrimonious, and for two years sprung out of the control of the presiding Anniston judge, it has grown and shrunk in size – as new accusers joined the fray and others died.

On Monday, approximately 3,500 local people will take Monsanto Co. to court. They will fling the company’s own literature about the hazards of its polychlorinated biphenyls back at ‘em.

They claim property damages, personal injuries, fraud, mental anguish or a combination of these and other related claims. They ask the judge to order dredging of the waterways and removal of two old landfills, one of which contains an estimated excess of 10 million pounds of PCBs, which are probable carcinogens. Also, they ask the jury to assess punitive damages against the company. It is a complicated case, with, reportedly, Web Director more than a half-billion dollars at stake.

A settlement with Monsanto remains a strong possibility.

But the case will not answer every accusation. While 3,500 represents a sizeable portion of the Anniston population, a much larger group of residents is waiting for its own day in court. Approximately 20,000 residents recently signed up with a team of heavy-hitting attorneys, including Johnny Cochran and Jere Beasley.

But the new team, so far, has not stirred the dirt to the extent of the existing case in this highly unusual piece of PCB litigation, which is not a class-action lawsuit.

The lawyer who has nursed Sabrina Abernathy vs. Monsanto et al. since the beginning is Donald Stewart, the Anniston native with a short history in U.S. politics and a penchant for "David vs. Goliath" litigation.

His case is not just another massive tort lawsuit in Alabama. Those are a dime (or rather, a multi-million-dollar-jury verdict) per dozen.

Indirectly, this case brought Superfund to Anniston. In the past two years, red flags like results of the plaintiffs’ blood tests and an expert witness’ air monitoring for PCBs near the plant provided evidence to state and federal regulators that the contamination problem in Anniston was very big and very bad – enough so to rate it as one of the worst-contaminated places in the country.

And yet, the litigation and the regulatory activities have been uneasy neighbors in western Anniston. Many of the plaintiffs have not participated in the federal health investigations and have resisted property cleanups conducted by company contractors. In court, Stewart will attempt to prove that the cleanup standards used by the Environmental

Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management are woefully insufficient.

The Abernathy case also has played a role in three major national media articles – in The Nation, US News & World Report and in The Washington Post last week. A computer search of The Anniston Star’s electronic archives indicates that the PCB issue has bred more than 220 articles in The Star since the mid-1990s.

At any point, it could be settled. But sources close to the case say it will most likely malice it to the opening day of trial on Monday.

Jury selection will begin at 9 a.m. at the Gadsden courthouse. Opening statements are expected on Wednesday.

The players

There are lawyers assisting the lawyers, and even lawyers assisting the judge, but three individuals have invested the most energy in handling Abernathy vs. Monsanto et al.

One is Joel Laird, the CalholID County circuit judge who presides over the case and who has often criticized the attorneys’ behavior in his chambers. In one recent ruling, for example, he accused Monsanto’s legal team of being "less than honest" with the circuit court and the Alabama Supreme Court. He was refening to the two-year holdup of the case, initiated by Monsanto in a last-minute writ of mandamus to the Alabama Supreme

Court, six days before the case was set for trial in 1999.

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