Dioxin Suits Settled for $19 Million
By Martha Middleton
MORE THAN 100 Missourians - including residents of Times Beach, the town shut down by the U.S. government three years ago - have been awarded $19 million in a tentative settlement of three dioxin-contamination suits.
The lawsuits were filed in 1983 and 1984 after waste oil containing the dioxin - among the most deadly of man-made chemicals - was sprayed over roads, parking lots and horse stables at 11 Missouri sites.
The plaintiffs, whose alleged health problems from the contamination range from cancer to liver and immuno-logical trouble, resided near or worked at the sites or lived close to the land in Verona, MO., where the chemicals were manufactured.
The settlement was reached as jury selection was started in the Circuit Court for St. Louis, where trial was set to begin Dec. 1, according to plaintiffs' attorney Jerome J. Schlichter. Mr. Schlichter is a partner in the St. Louis office of East St. Louis, Ill's Carr, Korein, Kunin, Schlichter, Montroy & Brennan.
Beginning in 1971, according to the complaint in the case, several companies agreed to dispose of the contents of a tank containing chemicals and other substances, including the dioxin. Named in the complaint were independent petrochemical Corp., formerly of St. Louis: the defunct Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. (NEPACCO) of Verona: and the Syntex Corp. of Palo Alto, Calif., NEPACCO's partner.
Independent Petrochemical, in turn, hired Russell M. Bliss, a private contractor, to haul away the waste from the plan premises, according to the complaint, and he deposited the waste at various sites in Missouri, concentrating on roads, streets, parking lots and horse stables, where the waste oil was used for dust control.
The complaint alleged that the defendants "knew and encouraged and facilitated the manufacture and disposal of the dioxin and other hazardous substances," and that they knew or should have known that the tank's contents "were extremely dangerous and toxic" to any person exposed to them. Drinkard v. Independent Petrochemical Corp., 832-05206.
In seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, the plaintiffs said that the defendants failed to take the "special precautions: that the defendants knew should have been taken because of the "special and inherent dangers" of the chemicals.
Because of a confidentiality agreement, Mr. Schlichter refused to disclose the amounts of the settlement awards, but separate sources said Independent Petrochemical would pay $12 million: the Charter Corp of Jacksonville, Fla., its owner, $2 million: Syntex, $4.75 million; and NEPACCO, $250,000.
No liability was found against Mr. Bliss because he was uninsured with no assets, it was reported.
Independent Petrochemical and its parent company are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in a Florida federal court, which must approve the settlement before it is final.
Several probate courts also will have to approve the settlement, according to Mr. Schlichter, because four of the plaintiff's have died since the suits were filed.
Mr. Schlichter called the cases "a classic example of chemical companies which either produce or become involved in the generation of toxic substances."
"Those companies have to see to it that the waste is disposed of safely," he said.
The trial was to be what Circuit Judge James L. Sanders called a "test-case approach." He had narrowed the number of plaintiffs to a representative group of six Times Beach residents to avoid a lengthy trial like the one in Belleville, Ill., involving 65 plaintiffs allegedly contaminated by dioxin, which is approaching its third anniversary. (NLJ, March 3.)
That case is being tried by Mr. Schlichter's partner, Rex Carr.
In spite of the judge's attempts to shorten the trial, including limiting witnesses to four medical experts and three non-medical experts. Prospective jurors still were being told that the case would last five months, Mr. Schlichter said.
While the plaintiffs objected to that approach, defendants welcomed it.
"It's an economical, judicious way of disposing of a number of claims," said Ted L. Perryman of St. Louis' Roberts, Perryman & Bomkamp Inc.
The test-case approach also avoided a problem that defendants always faced in mass tort claims "that the jury thinks there must be something to this if all these people are making claims," he added.
Mr. Perryman, who had no comment on the settlement itself, represented NEPACCO.