The first of six personal injury cases that could determine the liability of DuPont and its successor Chemours for contaminated drinking water got under way last week in a Columbus, Ohio, federal court.
About 3,500 cases are now pending against the two firms in a class-action suit that contends DuPont’s release of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) into drinking water near its Parkersburg, W.Va., plant caused residents nearby to become ill. For decades DuPont used PFOA as a surfactant to make Teflon and other fluoropolymers. PFOA has been phased out since 2006.
The other cases are on hold while the six bellwether suits—which could point the way for plaintiffs and defendants in the future—get under way. The cases name DuPont, but since the firm spun off its performance chemicals businesses, including fluoropolymers, as Chemours in July, Chemours is responsible for lawsuit costs.
In the first case, lawyers for 59-year-old Carla Bartlett, who lived near the Parkersburg plant, say exposure to PFOA caused her kidney cancer. The suit also alleges that DuPont exposed Bartlett and others to PFOA despite knowing the harm it could cause.
“We believe the plaintiff’s exposure to PFOA was insufficient to cause health problems,” a DuPont official responds. A Chemours spokesman adds that lifestyle choices and other causes of health issues will have to be weighed for Bartlett and those in the other pending cases. “Litigation of this type typically takes place over many years,” he notes.
An earlier suit started in 2001. In 2005, DuPont agreed to a $108 million settlement that included money to help utilities remove PFOA from drinking water. But the settlement didn’t prevent personal injury suits, should a connection be found between PFOA and disease.
In 2012, an independent science panel funded by DuPont found probable links between PFOA exposure and disease including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol.
“Whether the trials will bring justice and resolution for the plaintiffs is problematic,” says Patrick McGinley, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. “Realistically, it boils down to how much it would cost to proceed to trial for both sides and how much to settle.”