Back in 2008, we wrote about an extraordinary class-action case brought by 80,000 people against DuPont USA, which had knowingly “polluted water supplies of two West Virginia and four Ohio water districts with a chemical used to manufacture Teflon, called C-8,” and tried to cover it up.
It was an important settlement, requiring the company to stop poisoning people and, among other things, “install filtration systems in contaminated water districts.” But it didn’t cover compensatory damages for people who were sick and dying. Area residents and DuPont employees had cancers, diseases and children born with severe birth deformities at unusually high rates but no epidemiological study yet existed tying their diseases to C-8. At least not yet.
Included in the $374 million settlement that DuPont agreed to pay was $70 million for a community health and education project and $30 million to fund a health study, juried by independent, court-appointed epidemiologists, to evaluate the health effects of C-8. DuPont even agreed not to contest the panel’s conclusions even if they found a general causal connection between C-8 and health effects - the basis for any possible future injury claims.
Why would DuPont agree to such a thing? Well, DuPont probably thought they had nothing to fear.
At the time, given the difficulty of the study, finding a link seemed improbable. Establishing such a connection would require a very large pool of data- larger than is typically collected from a single rural community.
But what they didn’t anticipate was clever lawyering by the plaintiffs’ attorneys they were fighting. Here is what happened next (as explained in a long-format expose, which appeared this week in the Huffington Post):
This conundrum weighed heavily on attorney Harry Deitzler, who lives in Parkersburg and serves as a local liaison to plaintiffs. ‘I knew the reason DuPont settled the case and agreed to assign this panel of epidemiologists was because they didn’t think they were ever in this lifetime going to find links,’ Deitzler told me. “But I didn’t want to face people and say, ‘Hey, we got this huge settlement and everybody only gets 600 bucks.’”
Then one night, a solution came to him. “It was like God reached out from the sky and tapped into my brain,” he recalls. The plaintiffs would use the $70 million health and education fund from the settlement to pay people $400 each to participate in the epidemiological study.
As a result of the strategy, roughly 80% of the residents in the effected water districts participated in the epidemiological study, making it “far more likely the panel of epidemiologists would be able to correlate C-8 exposure with particular diseases.” Paul Brooks, the doctor who oversaw the program, explained, “I think it messed up a lot of people at DuPont’s lives that we devised this wild system. These hillbillies threw a rock in DuPont’s machine.”
And it worked. The results of the study were so overwhelming that not even experts funded by DuPont could ignore them.
In 2012, the epidemiologists concluded that a “probable link exists” between the chemical and at least 6 diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia.
This scientific discovery, made possible by the overwhelming community participation in the epidemiological study, provided the link victims needed to show that C-8 was responsible for the cancers, diseases, and deformities that effect thousands in the community.
This month, trial begins on the first of 3,500 personal injury cases that have now been filed against DuPont. We will keep you posted.