JULIANA BARBASSA, ASSOCIATED PRESS
FRESNO, Calif. – Three chemical manufacturers were ordered to pay the city of Modesto $178 million for contaminating its water with suspected carcinogens, a jury decided.
Jurors in San Francisco Superior Court found the companies acted with malice because they failed to tell dry cleaners how to use perchloroethylene or trichloroethylene without harming the environment.
The jury levied more than $175 million in punitive damages late Tuesday and $3.2 million in actual damages for groundwater contamination.
Vulcan Materials Co. was ordered to pay $100 million in punitive damages, Dow Chemical Co. was ordered to pay $75 million and RR Street & Co. Inc. was hit with a $75,000 verdict.
“We’re gratified at the jury’s verdict,” said attorney Duane C. Miller, who represented the city in the case. “We believe it’s the first time the manufacturers of PCE have been held accountable for damages caused by that product.”
Representatives of the companies reached Wednesday said they planned to appeal the verdict, which they called baseless.
“We think the punitive damages are completely without merit,” said David Donaldson, of Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials. “We’re going to be pursuing all the different means for post-trial and appellate relief to make that point.”
Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical argued in a statement that there was no proof any of their products had directly caused pollution in Modesto. The company also said it wasn’t fair for jurors to look at its product warnings issued decades ago, in light of the scientific information available today that suggests the chemicals could be more harmful than previously thought.
“Although the jury’s verdict is disappointing and without basis, Dow believes that this absurd result will be remedied by the courts,” said corporate vice president Charles J. Kalil.
Calls to RR Street, of Naperville, Ill., were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Two other chemical companies – Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries and Dallas-based Occidental Chemical Corporation – do not face punitive damages, but were ordered to contribute to the $3.2 million awarded in actual damages. Representatives from both companies also did not immediately return calls for comment.
Two local dry-cleaning businesses that were named in the lawsuit, Modesto Steam Laundry and Cleaners and Halford’s Cleaners, will not have to pay any damages.
“Claims have been brought against dry cleaners for contamination, when reality was they never knew this could cause contamination,” Miller said. “They were told they could dump this in the sewer and into the ground in the 60s, 70s, through 80s and into 90s. They just didn’t know.”
Modesto filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court in December 1998, but the case didn’t go to trial until February.