Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are commercially manufactured compounds that are widely used to make everyday products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. For example, PFCs are used to make non-stick cookware, are used in sprays to make fabrics stain-resistant, and are even used in certain food packaging materials. PFCs break down extremely slowly, and as a result there is widespread human exposure to PFCs that have been released into the environment from manufacturing processes.
The most common route of PFC exposure is through consuming PFC-contaminated drinking water. Many types of PFCs are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic if consumed, and can cause a wide range of health problems. Unfortunately, the use and disposal of most PFCs is largely unregulated by the government.
The DuPont company has used a type of PFC called perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the production of Teflon for non-stick frying pans since the 1950s. At one of DuPont’s chemical sites in Parkersburg, W.Va., the company spent decades dumping PFOA-containing waste into the Ohio River, thereby contaminating local water supplies and farmland. DuPont continued dumping this waste despite having known since at least 1961 that PFOAs were toxic and could cause health problems.
By the 1970s, DuPont discovered that its factory workers had high concentrations of PFOAs, and in 1991 DuPont established an internal safety limit for PFOA concentration in drinking water. Meanwhile, the company hid evidence that the chemical had contaminated the local water supply well beyond what the company’s own scientists considered safe and far beyond what independent scientists considered safe.
Litigation against DuPont over PFOA-contaminated drinking water began in 2001, when a class action was filed in West Virginia state court. In 2004, DuPont settled the case, agreeing to install filtration plants in the six affected water districts and pay a cash award of $70 million. DuPont also agreed to fund a scientific study to determine whether there was a scientific link between PFOA and any diseases. If any such link was found by the study, class members with those diseases could sue for personal injury.
In December 2011, the study found a “probable link” between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pre-eclamsia. Since the study was released, more than 3,500 Plaintiffs have filed personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont, and these cases have been consolidated into a multidistrict litigation (MDL) in Ohio’s Southern District.
There are five bellwether trials planned in the MDL, and the first two trials have recently resulted in verdicts for the Plaintiff.
• In the first trial, Carla Bartlett made Ohio state law claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, alleging that she had developed kidney cancer as a result of exposure to PFOA-contaminated drinking water. The jury agreed with Ms. Bartlett, and awarded her $1.6 million. The judge in that case denied DuPont’s request for a new trial, and declined to grant reconsideration of the jury award.
• In the second bellweather trial, the jury awarded testicular cancer survivor David Freeman $5.1 million, and also found that DuPont had acted with “actual malice,” triggering a punitive damages phase in the trial. We wrote in more detail on this case below.
After the remaining bellwether trials conclude, DuPont may choose to settle with the remaining class members, using the outcome of the bellwether cases to determine settlement awards. If you would like more information about any aspect of these cases, you can contact Grant Cofer, a lawyer in our firm’s Toxic Torts Section. Grant can be reached at 800-898-2034 or by email at Grant.Cofer@beasleyallen.com.
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