Personal injury

As PCB lawsuits in Pittsfield rise to nine, we ask “civil action” attorney Jan Schlichtman: How difficult are these cases to prove? | local news


Jan Schlichtmann is best known for his personal injury cases in the early 1980s when Woburn residents began linking illnesses and leukemia in children to chemicals in public drinking water. It was found that two companies were responsible for the waste that leaked into the water supply.

Jan Schlichtmann

Jan Schlichtmann, whose fight to bring Woburn’s industrial polluters to justice is documented in the book and film “A Civil Action,” told The Eagle about the challenges of prosecuting such cases. When asked about the lawsuits now being filed by PCB in Pittsfield, he said the allegations may be difficult to prove.

In a legal drama that has dragged on for years, Schlichtman and his legal team are depleted as they struggle with much deeper pockets, run into debt and fail to deliver big financial wins to families.

Jonathan Haar captured Schlichtman’s agonizing pain In his book “Civil Lawsuit”. In the film version, John Travolta plays Schlichtmann.

There has been failure, but all is not lost. New evidence later emerged The Environmental Protection Agency sued the companies They forced them to pay $69 million to clean up the pollution.

Schlichtmann has subsequently managed other contamination-related cases, including one Tom River, New Jersey, where childhood cancers It has been linked to water contamination from three companies.

In the 1980s, while Schlichtman was working on the Woburn cases, much of the PCB contamination from General Electric’s transformer business in Pittsfield had already seeped into the city in various ways.

Such pollution would deprive the Housatonic River from Pittsfield downstream to other towns. This will lead to the issuance of warnings that continue to this day not to eat fish from the river. It would force an agreement between the EPA and General Electric The cleanup plan is estimated to cost the company $650 million.

But PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — would also enter neighborhoods and schools through contaminated dirt that General Electric gave to the adjacent Allendale Elementary School during its construction in 1950, as well as to homeowners in the nearby Lakewood neighborhood.

Since mid-August, solicitor Thomas Bosworth has brought nine lawsuits in Berkshire High Court centered on the school district and two nearby landfills on the site of the former General Electric plant. Much of the Allendale School property was eventually treated and restricted.

Ellendale Backs-5.jpg

The Allendale School of Pittsfield has several particulate air monitors that the EPA uses to test air samples twice a year for PCBs. The school’s field and playground is located next to the former General Electric Company plant whose PCB-contaminated soil was used during the school’s construction in the 1950’s.

eagle mentioned in the first five.

Since Thursday, four more lawsuits have been filed – one by the widower of a longtime teacher in Allendale. Last Thursday, Stephen McDermott filed a complaint on behalf of Nina McDermott’s estate, alleging that her breast and kidney cancers were caused by her exposure to PCBs at and around school.

Two more complaints were filed on Monday by sisters Paula and Nancy King, who attended the school in the 1970s. One of them had brain cancer. The other is breast cancer.

Also on Monday, Dylan Welsh, 24, filed a complaint alleging that his brain cancer is a direct result of his attendance at Allendale.

Bosworth said the lawsuits represent a continuous stream of legal action Connect PCB contamination In the city over the years for various cancers and other diseases.

All of the lawsuits filed in Pittsfield allege a link between PCBs and cancer, including injuring two of the city’s children. A former resident of the city links his Parkinson’s disease to exposure. The defendants are General Electric and PCB manufacturer Monsanto, as well as other related entities. Monsanto has so far denied responsibility. General Electric declined to comment due to the lawsuit.

PCB sued McDermott

The McDermott family, from left, Nina, Abigail and Stephen. Nina McDermott passed away of cancer last year. Stephen McDermott filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that Nina’s cancer was caused by exposure to PCBs during more than two decades of teaching at Allendale Elementary. The same school, which is located next to the former General Electric plant and a PCB landfill, has been remedied and covered by this school.

These personal injury cases are also known as torts, which are considered “civil wrongs” because they stem from willful or negligent harm to a person or property.

Situations in which environmental pollution causes “toxic damage” are sometimes called.

And such cases may never reach trial. A judge can dismiss them early or a company accused of wrongdoing may decide to settle with the accused for a sum of money rather than incur the expenses of the trial and damage its reputation.

‘very long time’

Schlichtman, who lives in Beverly, spoke to The Eagle about the lawsuits filed in Pittsfield and the obstacles in trying to prove such cases.

Barriers range from money to the amount of time that has elapsed between the plaintiff’s exposure to PCBs and the time they lodged their complaints. Schlichtman said legal challenges and proposals could eliminate or hinder lawsuits.

“One thing is for sure, it will take a very long time,” he added.

Schlichtman said he is not suggesting that such lawsuits should not be brought. Lawyers are “very brave.”

“I salute those who embrace this struggle,” he said, adding that the problem is also receiving due attention.

When asked about expenses and Schlichtman’s expertise, Thomas Bosworth, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney in Pittsfield, said he covers them.

Without going into details, he replied, “I have money.” “a period.”

Other lawyers also cited the time factor – the statute of limitations – as a complicating factor.

One factor that will influence how these cases proceed is knowledge of PCB contamination, which has been in the news for years, and the timing of residents’ complaints, said Jonathan Braverman, a Pittsfield attorney.

“When should the plaintiffs have reasonably known that there was probable cause of action?” Braverman said.

Thomas Campoli, who practices at law in Pittsfield, also points to the problem of time and publicity. He said one reason for the high cost of handling such cases was the cost of the experts needed to correlate the exposure to the specific PCBs released by GE, given all the other exposures a person might have had, regardless of what other factors influencing them might have caused them. in illness

“You need experts in certain separate areas,” Campoli said.

Joseph Zlatnik, a Pittsfield attorney, says that while the statute of limitations is not always a “full shield” for companies in tort cases, the sheer cost of what has become a scholarly dispute over whether companies are responsible has alienated him. Of such claims.

“It turns into this battle of the experts,” Zlatnik said. “Causation can be challenging when it comes to a disease that develops over time.”

Even a Washington state attorney whose firm successfully sued Monsanto over PCBs at a school spoke of the challenge of suing big companies with teams of lawyers and scientists on staff.

“The huge disparity of resources is a real problem,” said Richard Friedman. “Toxic damage issues are difficult—and difficult for a single practitioner to attempt.”

Dependence on war

All of this is why Schlichman is more interested in talking about a new way to proceed in such battles. His preferred path would be one that didn’t require a lot of money, time, struggle or courts – one that would prevent damage from the industry before it happens.

“Unfortunately, the law is a very clumsy tool to hold people accountable for environmental pollution,” he said.

He is not sure how much progress has been made. He points to widespread contamination with PFAS — the “chemical forever” — that is now sparking new lawsuits despite all that has been learned over the decades.

“We are still fighting the toxic legacy of the 20th century, while producing the toxic legacy of the 21st century,” he said.

Schlichtmann says that the system and its players continue to swing in a legal round that does not lead to a real solution.

But the civil justice system isn’t set up to actually do that, according to Schlichman. He added that it aims to do the opposite, i.e. to prolong the conflict.

“The decision actually means that we are enlightened by the process, not more enthusiastic about it,” he said.

Schlichtmann believes that the civil justice system we now have is flawed to the core. He does not often fix what is wrong.

“It’s like relying on war to give us peace,” he said.


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