Environmental Toxic/Tort: Newman v. Stringfellow

The Story:

In November, 1989, our firm (then Nicholls Investigative Agency, Inc.) was privileged to serve as a lead investigative agency for the Joint Defense Committee (JDC) on the following case. At the time of trial, this was the largest toxic tort that had been tried in the country.

A Brief History of the Stringfellow SUPERFUND site:

In 1955, a geologist employed by the State of California was told to find a location for an industrial liquid waste dump within an hour's drive of Los Angeles. He selected a box canyon in the Jurupa Mountains in western Riverside County. The owner of the quarry, Mr. James Stringfellow, agreed to allow part of his property to become the disposal site. The site began receiving hazardous liquid waste shortly thereafter.

In 1969, heavy rains flooded the canyon and breached several earthen dikes, allowing chemical wastes to flow into the growing community of Glen Avon. When floodwaters covered the well at the Glen Avon School, it tested positive for hexavalent chromium, a hazardous chemical. The site operator hired engineers to secure the site so operations could continue and new and better dikes were built. Riverside County revoked the special land use permit, however, when chromium was detected in a well about one kilometer down gradient from the site.

The site ceased receiving hazardous chemical waste in late 1972. The owner stopped paying property taxes on the closed waste disposal operation, so the State of California seized the property in 1975. Hazardous materials lay exposed on the surface and some lagoons contained small quantities of liquid waste, a coffee-colored fluid that smelled of chemicals. Unable to sell the site to a new operator, the State sought its permanent closure. The press called the site the "Stringfellow acid pits" because much of the liquid waste received there was acidic pickling liquid from steel plants.

There were no funds available for cleaning up the site, so the State Senator representing the community of Glen Avon introduced a bill to include cleanup costs in the State budget. An appropriation was approved for about $450,000, but it soon became apparent that the amount was inadequate - conditions were far more complex than originally suspected.

In late 1980, heavy rains again flooded the site. Shortly thereafter, the new SUPERFUND law was brought to bear on the situation. In 1984, attorneys for the State of California and Department of Justice began seeking reimbursement of cleanup costs from those potentially responsible for the abandoned hazardous wastes at Stringfellow.

The Cases:

By 1989, the lawsuits for personal injury and diminution of property value numbered over 3,800. The plaintiffs were people who lived in the area and the defendants were a who's who of industry - any manufacturer of note in Southern California who produced toxic waste and utilized waste haulers that transported toxins to the site.

The personal injury suits were primarily for allegations of immune system damage. The plaintiffs had been exposed to an array of chemicals that would make any jury blanch - hexavalent chromium, DDT, acids, pesticides and toxic metals that made the site one of the worst hazardous waste areas in the nation. Given the number of defendants, plaintiffs and counsel, the initial months of the investigation was a logistical challenge. Since the areas surrounding Glen Avon, Ribideaux, Pedley and parts of Riverside had a long agricultural/stock history, we started pursuing ideas such as what impact would nitrates have on human health.

On the issue of real property damage, we did extensive background investigations on the experts who were going to testify for the plaintiffs on those issues. We also investigated all allegations of "lost opportunities" for the sale of homes.

On the personal injury side, the focus was first to try to establish whether or not the reported subjective effects of the exposure were true. One plaintiff asserted that his nervous system had been so badly damaged that he "couldn't button his shirts." After locating him in Arkansas, we placed him under surveillance and discovered that he was working for a cable TV company. Before long, we secured extensive surveillance footage of him working on a telephone pole using tools and doing complex wiring with his hands.

In another case the plaintiff was a minor. His parents asserted that his equilibrium was impaired. He was also placed under surveillance and was videotaped surfing very adroitly.

Next, we focused on the plaintiffs that were actually suffering the effects of an immune system compromise. Was there a possible alternative source of exposure? We painstakingly interviewed friends, coworkers, non-plaintiff family members, etc. in an effort to recreate a complete picture of each plaintiff's life. Over 1,000 interviews were conducted during the course of the investigation.

Our work assisted the JDC in presenting an effective counter to many of the plaintiff's claims. Most of the cases were settled on the basis of ongoing medical monitoring and greatly reduced the money paid in damage claims.

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