Almost three years after a U.S. District Court jury returned an almost $2 million damage award against Continental Carbon Co. of Phenix City, the company is paying the city of Columbus, a south Columbus businessman and an Oakland Park resident what the jury said was their due. Plus interest.
And $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees.
Continental Carbon spokesperson Blake Lewis of Houston said the decision to go ahead with payment Thursday of the compensatory damage portion of the jury’s verdict was made despite the company’s contention that it was not the source of the pollution court testimony showed was damaging the city’s South Commons buildings, businessman John Tharpe’s Action Marine business on Victory Drive and Owen Ditchfield’s residence in Oakland Park.
“We have said that we were prepared to accept responsibility for any adverse effects that were deemed to be the result of our operations, and we have kept our word,” Continental Carbon President Kim K.T. Pan said in a press release.
But Pan said the company will continue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning a $17.5 million punitive damage award also returned by the jury in the August 2004 civil case tried in Opelika, Ala. The company is challenging that portion of the verdict as “unprecedented and grossly excessive.”
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta in March upheld both the compensatory and punitive damage awards in the case involving pollutants allegedly discharged from the company’s Phenix City plant. The court refused to rehear the case. The Supreme Court has not indicated whether it would accept the company’s appeal.
Good news for some
A check for about $2 million in compensatory damages and $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees was received Thursday afternoon by the Beasley-Allen law firm in Montgomery, Ala., which was joined by attorneys Jeff Friedman of Birmingham and Eddie Jackson of Jackson, Ala., in representing the plaintiffs. Attorney David Byrne of Beasley-Allen said he hasn’t consulted with clients and the firm is still considering possible ramifications of the payout.
“We are going to have to try to determine whether Continental Carbon is attempting to attach any sort of strings to the payment,” Byrne said. “The Continental Carbon legal team hasn’t actually spelled out what they expect to get in return for this payment.”
None of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were aware Thursday that checks were on their way to them.
For the city of Columbus, the $570,000 jury award, plus interest, will be welcome, said City Manager Isaiah Hugley.
Since the city has already cleaned and repaired the Civic Center and other South Commons area facilities damaged by pollutants, that money will go into the city’s General Fund, Hugley said.
“It would be appropriated as council sees fit,” he said. “They could choose to establish a special maintenance fund to cover those areas that receive damages as a result of soot from Continental Carbon. That would be a council decision, whether it be from punitive or compensatory damages from the suit.”
For businessman John Tharpe, receiving a $100,000 personal award and $1.2 million for his Action Marine business, plus interest, the money comes after he had to give up his Victory Drive boat sale business. He’s now operating a smaller version of Action Marine at Third Avenue and 38th Street.
“It’s good news — very good news,” Tharpe said when told the check was on its way. “They pretty much about put me out of business on Victory Drive. I sold that property. I couldn’t continue to do business out there.”
Looking for closure
Ditchfield, who’s to receive $45,000 plus interest, said he’s especially pleased for Tharpe.
“I would be pleased to see some closure from this,” Ditchfield said. “I’m hoping Continental Carbon will not do any more polluting, although it’s apparently happened, and that accepting this responsibility will make them a better corporate neighbor.”
Byrne added that, after almost three years of waiting since the jury verdict, plus years of pre-trial preparation, clients and attorneys are all “disappointed” that the company has chosen to prolong the appeal process concerning the punitive damages.
The Phenix City plant manufactures carbon black, very fine carbon particles used to make tires, plastics, inks and other products.