CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A year before it was sued, a DuPont lawyer warned the chemical giant that it could be found liable in a class-action lawsuit alleging a chemical contaminated drinking water, according to company documents unsealed by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
The court voted 5-0 Thursday to unseal the internal documents, which include a November 2000 memo written by in-house DuPont lawyer John R. Bowman that recommended “getting out in front and acting responsibly (to) undercut and reduce the potential for punitives.” The ruling upholds a decision by the trial court judge.
Residents of southeast Ohio and West Virginia claim the plant near Parkersburg along the Ohio River contaminated water supplies with a chemical called sperfluorooctanoate, also known as C8. They filed a class-action lawsuit in 2001 against DuPont on behalf of up to 50,000 people who live nearby.
DuPont argued the documents are privileged and should not been unsealed. The company claimed the documents were inadvertently released to lawyers for area residents.
Bowman’s memo warned the company would “spend millions to defend these lawsuits and have the additional threat of punitive damages hanging over our head.”
DuPont lawyer Tom Flaherty said the company was disappointed by the ruling.
“The documents in question offered individual opinions that do not represent the opinions of DuPont,” Flaherty said in a statement.
“DuPont is confident that the trial will provide an opportunity to rebut the claims and allegations made in this case with the facts and science,” he said. “DuPont believes that once a jury hears those facts, they will conclude that C8 at trace levels found in the community does not harm the members of the community or the environment.”
Neighbors of DuPont’s Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg allege in the lawsuit that the company polluted their water with unsafe levels of C8. The chemical also has been found in water samples in Little Hocking, Ohio.
DuPont has used C8 at the plant for more than 50 years in the production of Teflon.
The lawsuit alleges the company has known for decades that C8 was harmful to humans but concealed that knowledge from the public.
Last week, the company announced that it plans to conduct a $1 million study of plant employees who work with C8 to determine whether the substance causes any adverse health effects.
Bowman’s memo said he and another DuPont lawyer, Bernard J. Reilly, “have been unsuccessful in even engaging (company officials) in any meaningful discussion of the subject.”
“Our story is not a good one,” Bowman wrote. “We continued to increase our emissions into the river in spite of internal commitments to reduce or eliminate the release of this chemical into the community and the environment because of our concern about the bio-persistence of this chemical.”
“My gut tells me the bio-persistence issue will kill us because of an overwhelming public attitude that anything bio-persistent is harmful.”
Another document unsealed Thursday, known as the “Win for DuPont” memo, said the company’s goals were to “not create (the) impression that DuPont did harm to the environment” and to “keep (the) issue out of press as much as possible.” It also said DuPont needed background research on U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, hearing a related case involving a company dump at the time.