PCB settlement praised

posted on:
August 22, 2003

author:
Jessica Centers

category:
Environmental

Thursday was one for the history books. The sun shone brightly on the steps of the Calhoun County Courthouse as resident of western Anniston squeezed together to hear confirmed what they already knew to be true. It was the moment they may remember as marking the wait’s end and the future’s beginning – at least, that’s how they described it Thursday. “It’s just a happy day for the people of Anniston and the people of Alabama,” U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon said. Clemon was in Anniston – talking to an applauding crowd – because on Wednesday a $700 million settlement resolving all outstanding Anniston PCB contamination litigation was reached in his Birmingham courtroom. Clemon and Calhoun County Circuit Judge Joel Laird presided together over the hearing that brought the claims of more than 20,000 plaintiffs in both state and federal court under one agreement. Monsanto, Solutia, and Pharmacia agreed to pay those who accused them of polluting their bodies and properties with polychlorinated biphenyls produced at a western Anniston plant, while Pfizer, Inc. agreed to fund local health initiatives – including a medical clinic. The press conference sounded more like a vibrant church service or victory party with acceptance speeches from both teams’ most valuable players. Lawyers and judges were interrupted by shouts of “Amen” and cheers from the crowd. One woman softly whispered, “Thank-you Jesus.” Attorney Johnny Cochran praised the judges for their unprecedented coming together. “I think future courts will try to follow the example here,” he said. “This is going to be a better community all because the citizens had the courage to stand up.” Cochran described the case as an opportunity for him and the other lawyers to represent the underrepresented people of Anniston. “I practice law because I like to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” he said. The 15 jurors who have spent the last 20 months in trial deciding PCB verdicts in Laird’s state court case stood proudly through several rounds of applause. Last week, their verdicts topped $100 million, but those would become obsolete it plaintiffs agree to the terms of the settlement instead. “We’ve got troops spread out across the world,” Laird said. “These 15 people have performed a service tantamount to what troops are doing. They’ve suffered physically, mentally, in their jobs and home lives in order to perform their civic public duty.” The loudest cheers were for Donald Stewart, lead plaintiffs’ lawyer for the state case since 1996. He praised Laird for deciding seven years ago – when he first became involved with the case – that all 3500 plaintiffs should be tried. “He knew better than all the rest of us what needed to be done,” Stewart said. He also praised the people of western Anniston for their confidence and patience in the judicial system. Jere Beasley, a plaintiffs’ attorney in the federal case, spoke of the settlement as setting an example. “Corporate America has got to learn when you do things to hurt people you have to stand up and take the blame for it,” he said. Beasley then asked all the plaintiffs’ lawyers to join him in creating a special scholarship fund and challenged the defendant companies to match what they put in. Even Solutia CEO John Hunter was met with applause from the plaintiffs in the case against his company. “We never produced PCBs, but we are proud to be part of this resolution,” Hunter said. From the 1930s to 1970s, Monsanto produced PCBs at its plant in western Anniston. Solutia took on the plant’s environmental liabilities when it was spun-off from Monsanto in 1997. Clemon assured plaintiffs they would be compensated. “I am going to do what ever federal law permits me to do to make sure promises that have been made are kept.” But his last word told them not to expect more than their share. “In a case like this, the aim is to compensate those who have been injured,” he said. “If you have not been injured, you are not entitled to compensation. Keep in mind, this case was not brought to make anybody rich.” Unaware of how much – if any – individual compensation they would receive, plaintiffs at the press conference said they thought the settlement was fair, and they were happy the suits were over. Most had heard about it on television. The lawyers for plaintiffs in the federal case did not need their approval to settle and Stewart had yet to discuss the terms of the settlement with his clients in the state case. Maevon Satcher, like several other plaintiffs, said she was most happy with the health initiatives in the settlement. William Lumsford, also a plaintiff, called the decision a gift from God. “I think it’s a blessing to this community,” he said. “For so long, people have suffered. I know good things come to those who wait. We’ve certainly been waiting long enough.” Shirley Baker, a plaintiff and member of Community Against Pollution, said the settlement gives her hope. “We want to let everybody know this is a wonderful day,” she said. “We are elated. I’ve just been jumping for joy since yesterday.” R.T. Blair – a federal plaintiff – did not like that the federal and state plaintiffs had to each divide $300 million settlements, even though there are 14,000 more people in the federal case. “I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. City leaders present at the press conference agreed that it was a monumental day for Anniston. “It’s exciting,” Mayor Chip Howell said. “This community has had so many challenges. Now we can begin the healing process and actually have some substantial improvement.” City Councilman Ben Little said the settlement should help Anniston move toward its rightful position in terms of residential growth and economic development. “I’m hoping we can get the negative publicity behind us and turn that negative into a positive,” he said. City Councilman Herbert Palmore said he was most pleased with the health initiatives, and proud of everyone involved. “It’s a day to go down in history,” he said. “It’s a wonderful day.”

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