Alabama Jury Breaking the Bank in Suspect PCB Case

Published August 1, 2003

An Alabama jury has awarded $73 million in property damage and emotional distress awards to 380 people who have detected PCBs on their property. Significantly, most of the money has been tied to cleanup-cost claims … even though the defendant company has already agreed to clean up the PCBs at its own expense, and even though the asserted cleanup costs far exceed the cumulative value of the affected properties.

The jury has yet to determine damage awards for thousands more plaintiffs in the same case.

From 1935 through the early 1970s, Monsanto manufactured PCBs at a 70-acre Alabama site to insulate electrical equipment. The federal government banned PCBs in 1979 after some studies indicated that at high levels, PCBs can cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Since the ban, local property owners have tested their property for PCBs, and affected property owners filed a class-action lawsuit against Solutia, a specialty chemical company that was spun off by Monsanto in 1997 but inherited the parent company’s liability for PCB claims.

Windfall Awards

Although PCBs were considered safe at the time of their manufacture, and are still considered safe at low exposure levels, local property owners who can document trace levels of PCBs on their property are reaping a financial bonanza.

Aubrey Lee Tidwell was awarded $345,000 in cleanup costs for his home–which is valued at less than $20,000. Nothing prevents Mr. Tidwell from simply selling the home and pocketing a $345,000 windfall.

William Rozier and his wife detected PCBs in the yard of their modest homesite and presented evidence of trace PCB levels in their blood. A jury awarded them more than $450,000.

The awards are being made even though Solutia has already spent more than $50 million cleaning up PCBs and has entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up all other PCB-affected sites the agency designates.

Why are local jurors awarding local plaintiffs tens, and soon to be hundreds, of millions of dollars ostensibly to clean up sites the company has already committed to cleaning up at its own expense, ask Solutia spokespeople. And why are plaintiffs receiving property damage awards that are often 20 times or more what their property is worth?

Solutia stock was valued at $14.36 a month before the trial began, but is now trading at just $1.70.

Solutia vows it will appeal the verdict and the awards once the case concludes.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].