The Road Goes on Forever and the Trial Never Ends

Written by John C. Bird, P.G., Vice President of EnviroForensics
As seen in the June 2009 issue of Western Cleaner & Launderer

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On Monday this week, May 18 th a State Court jury awarded $18.3 million to the City of Modesto in their 11 year old lawsuit against dry cleaning chemical manufactures, suppliers and equipment manufactures. The City of Modesto had sued Dow Chemical, PPG Industries, Goss-Jewett, R.R. Street & Co. and others for a threat of groundwater contamination at four dry cleaner sites in the City of Modesto. According to the City of Modesto, several municipal supply wells had been impacted with perchloroethylene (PCE), a chemical widely used by the dry cleaning industry. The City alleged back in 1998, among other things, that the defendants made a defective product and they failed to warn the dry cleaners about the threat to groundwater from letting PCE discharge into the City’s sewer system. The jury trail lasted 5 months and is apparently not over yet. Both sides in the case do not appear to be completely happy with the jury’s decision.

On the face of the jury’s decision, it appears that the defendants have prevailed in this case. You’re probably asking how the City of Modesto could be awarded $18.3 million; and the defendants have prevailed? Well, according to a press release from Attorney, John Thomas, representing R.R. Street & Co., the defendants will seek to apply the money that the City of Modesto has already been awarded during the first case against the compensatory damages from this trial. Although the City disagrees with the offsets proposed by the defendants and will seek to apply previous settlement dollars to specific contamination sites within the City. Monday’s award was specific to the contamination from Elwood Cleaners on McHenry Avenue.

Back in 2006, the City of Modesto was awarded over $3 million in damages for cleanup costs and over $75 million in punitive damages from Dow Chemical and R.R. Street & Co. (the punitive damage amount was later reduced to just over $5 million). This award and other settlements have netted the City a combined $37 million for cleanup at the various sites with the City; although the City has estimated the entire cleanup cost to be over $100 million to remove the PCE from the City’s groundwater.

According to an attorney representing the defendant, Goss-Jewett, Goss-Jewett and R.R. Street & Co. had not been found liable for this phase of the proceedings; although an appeal is probably in the works already.

According the City’s outside lawyer, Duane Miller, the City plans to appeal the Judges pretrial ruling that barred the City from pursuing damages for contamination of property such as the City’s sanitary sewer system, the streets, and surrounding soils that wouldn’t endanger the drinking water. It’s not clear how much money the City and the defendants have spent in the two trials in this matter; although it’s safe to say more than they each expected.

So after 11 years of litigation, the trial goes on…