A jury on Friday determined that Monsanto Co. polluted an Alabama town with PCBs, a verdict that sets the stage for more trials on claims that the contamination harmed the residents’ health and property.
Monsanto, its spinoff Solutia Inc. and Pharmacia Corp. were found liable for the claims, including negligence.
Circuit Judge Joel Laird said he had not decided when or how damages against the companies would be set.
Monsanto attorney Adam Peck said after the verdict that the judge also still must decide how to proceed with the remaining cases. “It’s the first step of a long process,” he said.
Some 3,500 Anniston residents and business owners originally sued the companies, claiming Monsanto knowingly contaminated their community for decades with PCBs, chemicals used as an insulating fluid in electrical capacitors and transformers.
In the case decided Friday, 16 residents and one business claimed the contamination from a Monsanto plant had damaged their property and caused emotional distress.
Monsanto attorneys had argued the company acted responsibly by closing the Anniston plant in 1971 – six years before PCB production was banned by the government. The attorneys said the company wasn’t aware the chemicals were being released or that they could be dangerous to the general public.
“When Monsanto learned that PCBs could possibly be in the environment, it acted promptly and responsibly,” company attorney Jere White told jurors during the trial, which started Jan. 9.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers painted a picture of a reckless company that knew it was creating toxic dumps and didn’t tell its neighbors. They called expert witnesses who said Monsanto was aware of a health threat and concealed the danger.
“They did everything they could … to cover up the PCB problem and avoid cleaning up the mess,” said attorney Donald Stewart. “No one could find out the extent or nature of the contamination and what it had done to this community.”
Stewart said Friday that he was “gratified” by the verdict, as were some Anniston residents.
“I really did enjoy it,” said Maevon Satcher, whose lawsuit against the companies has yet to be heard.
Monsanto made PCBs in Anniston for about 40 years. The St. Louis-based food and biotechnology company spun off its chemical business in 1997, forming Solutia. Pharmacia Corp. formed after Monsanto merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn in 2000.
Allegations of PCB contamination in Anniston have dogged the companies for years.
A federal trial over PCB contamination in Anniston ended in a $40 million settlement last year, and Solutia, in another case, agreed to pay $43.7 million to as many as 5,000 property owners along Choccolocco Creek and Lake Logan Martin, where PCBs were found.
In a series of cases that have yet to be set for trial, a Montgomery law firm says it has about 13,000 clients suing over PCB contamination in Arnliston. And apart from the lawsuits, the company said it has spent $40 million cleaning up contamination around Anniston.
The trial was held in Gadsden, about 20 miles from the plant, because of pretrial publicity in Anniston.