GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Judge George J. Quist has given Wolverine World Wide two weeks to supply “substantive” records requested by attorneys representing more than 100 clients with drinking water polluted by toxic chemicals once used to make shoes.
Quist, a 17th Circuit Court judge in Kent County, said the Rockford-based shoemaker has until April 13 to turn over internal records sought during the initial steps in what’s expected to be a drawn-out litigation process that won’t see trial until next year.
The 20-minute hearing in Grand Rapids on Friday, March 23, was the first of what’s expected to be many in a growing wave of litigation sparked by last year’s discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS or PFCs in local drinking water.
Ingestion of PFAS has been linked in human studies to some cancers, thyroid disorders, elevated cholesterol and other diseases.
Quist also denied Wolverine’s request to dismiss and/or halt the first batch of 52 cases filed by Varnum Law starting last fall. The cases claim, among other things, that PFAS contamination has sickened and killed some people and hurt property values.
Neighbors of the PFAS dump on House Street suing Wolverine — including Sandy Wynn-Stelt, Melvin Nylaan, Steve Martin, Ryan and Meaghan Schweinzger, Seth and Tobyn McNaughton, and Jennifer and Lucas Carney — watched from the court pews.
Wolverine argued the individual cases in the state circuit court system should be folded into a separate class-action lawsuit in federal court.
Because Wolverine has installed whole-house water filtration systems at many homes with contaminated wells, “the plaintiffs in these cases have safe drinking water,” said James Moskal, a Warner Norcross & Judd attorney representing Wolverine.
Moskal argued Varnum is trying to “rush these cases forward when another court down the street is handing the same claims.” He asked Quist to “take a step back” and allow residents suing Wolverine in state court to join the class action case.
That case is scheduled for a conference on April 11, where a federal judge will bring Wolverine, 3M, Waste Management and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality together to discuss whether to appoint a special master to handle the complexities of separate class action and state-initiated environmental cleanup litigation.
Quist denied the request for a stay from the bench. He ordered Varnum to pick a single tentpole case out of the batch and schedule a tentative September 2019 trial date.
Quist also said Wolverine had engaged in “mere boilerplate” objections to requests for what Varnum attorney Aaron Phelps described as insurance policies, court files from 1966 litigation with Plainfield Township, other waste disposal records and “everything they knew about PFAS and when they knew it.”
Varnum had filed a motion to compel Wolverine to produce those records as part of the initial litigation discovery request.
Warner Norcross & Judd attorney Janet Ramsey quoted Abraham Lincoln in arguing that Wolverine was getting its case in order rather than being uncooperative.
“As Abe Lincoln said, ‘If I have six hours to chop a tree, I’m going to spend four hours sharpening my axe,'” Ramsey said. “We are sharpening our axe by going through the plan with plaintiffs to get a plan in place for discovery.”
The argument didn’t move Quist. “We need to move the ball forward with this case,” he said, ordering Wolverine to produce “substantive, non-evasive answers.”
“They shall in good faith produce all of this information by April 13.”
Before the hearing ended, Quist agreed with Wolverine that depositions in the case should wait until after an April 20 scheduling conference to begin.
Wolverine issued a statement after the hearing expressing disappointment at Quist’s decision not to hold the cases, saying that “overlapping and uncoordinated lawsuits in state and federal court” is not the best way to “work collaboratively to provide long-term water solutions for the community.”
“However, our efforts to vigorously protect and defend our company in court will not stop us from moving forward to develop real solutions with federal, state and local regulators,” the company said.
The statement did not address a request for response to Quist’s order that Wolverine produce records next month.
*Original article online at https://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2018/10/high_levels_of_pfas_found_at_g.html