A judge Monday approved the settlement of a class-action lawsuit alleging a chemical used in making the nonstick substance Teflon contaminated water supplies near DuPont Co.’s Washington Works plant.
Wood County Circuit Judge George W. Hill called the settlement — in which DuPont agreed to pay at least $107.6 million — “a very shrewdly and competently organized proposal and it seems to be a very unprecedented action by a huge corporate defendant.”
Hill noted that the settlement was finalized without any evidence that perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA or C8, caused any disease.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2001 on behalf of residents living near the plant, located on the Ohio River about 7 miles southwest of Parkersburg, who said their drinking supply was contaminated by PFOA.
DuPont has denied any wrongdoing but said in September it decided to enter into the agreement because of the time and expense of litigation.
Under the agreement, blood tests will be conducted on current customers of six area water districts in Ohio and West Virginia, former customers of those suppliers, and residents with private wells.
The agreement also calls for DuPont, based in Wilmington, Del., to provide the water utilities with new treatment equipment to reduce PFOA in water supplies at an estimated cost of $10 million. The company also is to fund a $5 million independent study to determine if PFOA makes people sick and pay $22.6 million in legal fees and expenses for residents who sued.
“At the state of where we are and what we know, it was premature to go to court. It would have just been an adversary proceeding. I think DuPont stepped up to put the matter back where it should be: before scientists,” said Larry Janssen, the lead attorney for DuPont.
Ultimately DuPont could be forced to spend another $235 million on a program to monitor the health of residents who were exposed to the chemical, according to the agreement.
“I’ve never seen a class-action settlement of this magnitude, which specifically addresses real-life health concerns of class members in the manner that this settlement will do,” said plaintiffs’ attorney, Harry Deitzler.
“We set out to find the truth on C8 and as a result of this settlement we will find the truth,” he said.
Participation in the lawsuit does not rule out future litigation against DuPont if the scientific panel finds C8 harmful.
Lead plaintiff Joe Kiger testified that he found the settlement to be fair. Kiger recounted his experience early in the lawsuit when he and fellow claimants were harassed for bringing the action against such a large local employer.
“We were criticized, ostracized and that sort of thing. People said things like ’what were we trying to do by taking out DuPont?”’
Kiger denied that it was his or the other plaintiffs’ intent to harm DuPont.
“The thing that bothered me was that there was a chemical in our water, and I wanted to know what it was doing there,” he said.
DuPont and plaintiffs’ attorneys have vetted several eminent epidemiologists to come up with a three-member science panel to determine whether there is a relationship between the chemical and human disease.
Another group has been tasked with taking the blood samples from area residents and screening those samples for the chemical and more than 20 other medical tests. The lab fees are expected to cost more than $31 million, and current and former residents are expected to be paid $26 million for giving their blood and medical records.
DuPont will fund the studies, but scientists will independently study the potential effects of the chemical.
“At the end of the day, DuPont is a science company and believes in science,” said Janssen.
If a causal effect is found, the science panel will hand the results over to another independent panel made up of medical doctors, Janssen said.