MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) – Attorneys for the carpet industry argued before the Alabama Supreme Court Tuesday that two lawsuits alleging Georgia carpet manufacturers allowed contaminants to enter the drinking supply of Alabama cities should not be heard in that state’s courts.
Thanks to a previous cottage industry and mechanical innovations, the area around Dalton, Georgia surged to become the center of the carpet industry in the U.S., starting in the 1950s. Today, 90% of the world’s carpets are made in Dalton, according to Rhon Jones, an attorney representing the water works and sewer boards for the Alabama cities of Centre and Gadsden.
Jones told the state’s high court Tuesday that the carpet industry in Georgia has allowed a group of chemicals called Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) to float downstream, running into the Coosa River in Alabama and into drinking supplies about 100 miles away from where the carpets are manufactured.
The chemicals are a concern, according to the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, because they do not easily break down in the environment and studies on animals have shown they have can affect liver and pancreatic health. The chemicals are used in many manufacturing processes and are used to make carpets stain resistant.
The institute is still studying the effect of the chemicals on human health.
Attorneys representing carpet manufacturing companies, including Mohawk Industries and Shaw Industries, said Tuesday that trial courts in two Alabama counties improperly denied motions to dismiss the cases. The attorneys argued that recent decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court have changed the criteria of what kinds of cases state courts can consider.
“It’s not the same law we read about in law school,” said Doug Scribner, an attorney representing Mohawk Industries.
Instead, Scribner pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v Superior Court as a recent example of the court changing how jurisdiction is decided.
The companies argued that applying different criteria for different types of lawsuits when determining jurisdiction would violate due process.
Scribner and two other attorneys – Sharon Stuart and William Custer – argued the proper venue was a Georgia court, because that is where they claim the alleged harm occurred.
Custer, who represented Shaw Industries, said that the company’s ties to Alabama are insufficient for that state’s courts to exert general jurisdiction in the matter – even though it sells its carpets in Alabama, and has employees and a manufacturing facility that makes unrelated items in the state.
Stuart said some of the clients she represented, such as Indian Summer Carpet Mills, submitted affidavits saying they never used the chemicals in their manufacturing processes.
The companies argued the fault for the alleged contamination lies with Dalton Utilities – the public utility tasked with cleaning the wastewater collected in the area around Dalton and returning it back into the environment by spraying the treated water across almost 10,000 acres of land. The companies claim Dalton Utilities is subject to Georgia regulations.
“In our case, we did what we were supposed to do,” Scribner told the court.
Meanwhile, Jones wanted to hammer home one point to the seven-judge panel.
“It’s crystal clear in Alabama: Personal jurisdiction is based on the unique facts of the case,” Jones said.
The attorney for the water boards for Gadsden and Centre contended the manufacturing companies knew or should have known that the chemicals would slip past Dalton Utilities’ filtration process.
Jones described the river as a conveyor belt, which carried the chemicals to Alabama, and he said the case should be heard in an Alabama courtroom to fulfill the principles of fair play and substantial justice.
“If you’re putting in a substance as toxic and persistent as PFCs, it’s going downstream,” Jones said. “That’s just common sense.”
In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency shared some of the conclusions it reached about PFCs in the carpet industry, according to Jones. The EPA limited the use of some of the chemicals in manufacturing in 2002.
In 2008, a study found that elevated level of PFCs were downstream of Dalton.
Two judges recused themselves and were not present for the oral arguments Tuesday.
It is unclear when the Alabama Supreme Court will issue its ruling.