Hundreds of chemical lawsuits forever awaited after Erin Brockovich visits Maine


Hundreds of lawsuits are expected in Maine over the effects of so-called chemicals for eternity after consumer advocate Erin Brockovich earlier this month met with residents in Fairfield and Unity, where high levels of PFAS have been found.

Concerns about the chemicals used for decades in products ranging from food packaging to non-stick cookware to fire-fighting foam are growing in Maine after high levels were found in farm produce, fish and wildlife, and drinking water.

As legal efforts move forward to help Maine residents and the state pay the costs to recover damages related to the chemicals, those seeking compensation must be prepared to wait years for their cases to be resolved .

If these cases get underway, litigation against chemical manufacturers in other parts of the US, including Michigan and Ohio, that have resulted in multimillion-dollar damages, could provide a path for the Maine cases. Another group of cases that could serve as an example are lawsuits against the manufacturers of fire-fighting foam containing PFAS. And a 22-year-old case pending in Maine federal court against a chemical manufacturer for its role in contaminating the Penobscot River shows how long the litigation could last.

Brockovich is known for her work on a groundwater pollution lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric in California that was settled in 1996. The effort was made famous by the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts. The paralegal is credited with helping more than 600 Hinkley, California residents win $333 million in settlements.

Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich on January 22, 2019 in Sacramento, California. Source: Kathleen Ronayne | AP

She came to Maine on May 6 and 7 to encourage Maine residents to consider participating in a class action lawsuit. So far, around 200 potential plaintiffs have come forward Garmey Lawthe Portland law firm handling the litigation.

A class tort lawsuit is similar to a class action lawsuit, but each individual or family sues separately rather than joining a lawsuit.

In another lawsuit, a lawsuit pending in the US District Court in Bangor involves owners and former owners of paper mills in central Maine. The plaintiffs are a dozen Fairfield families who allege that PFAS — including thousands of chemicals used in manufacturing — contaminated their water or land, forcing them to stop using their water until they have installed expensive filter systems.

Plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages to cover depreciation costs, property depreciation and income, medical surveillance, emotional distress and attorneys’ fees. The mills’ attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, as is usual at this early stage.

Once the discovery in this case is made available and it is determined where the chemicals used by the mills were manufactured, another set of lawsuits against the companies that manufactured PFAS are expected.

Third generation dairy farmer Fred Stone takes a break before picking up a load of hay for one of the few remaining cows on his spread in Arundel on Friday April 15, 2022. Stone was forced to slaughter most of his herd after noticing high levels of PFAS “forever” chemicals on his land in 2016. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A law firm in San Antonio, Texas Watt Guerra LLP, which has experience in mass tort trials, works with Garmey Law to prepare these cases. The law firms have opened an office in Waterville to meet with potential plaintiffs.

But people joining the litigation need to be in it for the long haul, attorney Alexis Garmey Chardon said. Cases in other states have taken nearly a decade to complete, and even longer before some litigants have received redress.

A 2010 Michigan case against chemical manufacturer 3M, which was settled in 2018 for $850 million, could be a precursor to the Maine case.

Last year, Michigan announced it would use the money to fund six new or expanded drinking water treatment plants, drill at least four new public wells, treat more than two dozen existing wells, connect 296 homes to municipal water supplies, and install Filter systems costing nearly 100 million to use 1,000 homeowners with contaminated wells.

Ohio last year awarded a $83 million judgment in a class action lawsuit involving about 80,000 Ohio and West Virginia residents who drank water caused by chemical releases from DuPont’s Washington Works facility in the near Parkersburg, West Virginia. This money has not yet been distributed.

In a separate lawsuit alleging the same contamination, more than 3,500 group members suffering from one of six diseases linked to Forever Chemicals filed personal injury claims against DuPont.

DuPont agreed to settle those cases for $617 million in 2017, but payment of the money was delayed when DuPont sued two affiliates trying to share the costs. That legal dispute was settled earlier this year when the companies agreed to split the costs equally.

In Maine, a lawsuit initiated in 2000 alleging mercury deposits in the Penobscot River resulting from pollution from the abandoned HoltraChem facility in Orrington is pending in federal court in Bangor. A consent order settling the case was issued last year, but US District Judge John Woodcock has yet to sign it more than 22 years after the lawsuit was filed.

In addition to lawsuits alleging water and soil pollution from PFAS, litigants are watching the hundreds of cases firefighters and water districts have filed alleging that manufacturers of fire-fighting foam used harmful chemicals that injured firefighters and leaked into city water systems. Some firefighters also claim PFAS in their turnout gear has made them sick.

Fifteen retired and active-duty Massachusetts firefighters say in a federal lawsuit against two dozen companies that so-called forever chemicals in their equipment and in fire-fighting foams the companies make contributed to their cancer diagnoses. Photo credit: Mark Stockwell | AP

These cases were bundled in the US District Court in South Carolina, according to Bloomberg law. Cases involving water utilities will be heard first in the multiple district litigation, with a pilot trial scheduled for March 2023. The individual fire service complaints are then continued.

A Bellwether trial examines a case drawn from a large body of lawsuits filed against the same defendants to anticipate how future litigation might play out. Bellwether cases could be used in the Maine litigation.

As the level of PFAS contamination and the prevalence of the chemical in popular products becomes clearer, more lawsuits can be expected.

At least three lawsuits were filed in Illinois and California, for example, against McDonald’s and Burger King, accusing them of misleading consumers about the safety of their products Consumer reports found that almost half of 24 restaurant chains and grocery stores had at least one food packaging product with high PFAS levels.

In addition to individual lawsuits, attorneys general in Ohio and Colorado have sued chemical companies seeking to recover costs and pay for future mitigation efforts. The Ohio lawsuit filed in 2018 is still pending. The Colorado lawsuit was filed earlier this year.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey is also preparing to sue chemical manufacturers for perpetuity. He is looking for a private law firm to handle the complex litigation.


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