Environment: April 2004 Archives

Oz: a sued gardener's plight

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Even the loser-pays principle wasn't enough to shield 78-year-old backyard gardener Vincenzo Tavernese of Hornsby, New South Wales, from a far-fetched claim by litigious neighbors claiming injury from the pesticides he used. "The growing popularity of no-win, no-fee law [in Australia] has led to an increase in litigation with little downside for the losing plaintiff. It has been a major driver of the liability crisis." (Miranda Devine, "Don't blame me, I'm just the lawyer" (opinion), Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 4). The article drew responses in the form of letters that appeared in the SMH (one of which asserts that defendant Tavernese had the right to seek a costs security order in the litigation requiring the plaintiffs to show an ability to pay his fees if unsuccessful); a response by Ian Harrison SC defending contingency fees; and a discussion on the Slattsnews blog.

The sewers and the sued

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Various towns and small cities in Eastern Washington have spent small fortunes upgrading their sewage systems as required by law, and the state Department of Ecology says it's satisfied with their progress toward compliance. But a private Seattle-based group that calls itself Waste Action Project is suing the towns anyway, holding large potential financial penalties over their heads. For example, citing the remedy provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, it's demanding $27,500 a day in fines, going back over 16 years, against the Lincoln County town of Wilbur, population 880, which has already spent millions on improvements in an attempt to bring itself into compliance with the Act. "The law also allows Waste Action to collect attorney fees if it proves violations that were reported by the defendants. The cities are required to report violations to the Department of Ecology and the lawsuits are based on the defendants' own admissions." Wilbur Mayor Don Reid is less than charitable about the motives of the environmental group, which has filed at least 40 enforcement actions around the state: "The purpose of their action is to put some money in their pocket, but they're trying to hide that," he charged. Seattle attorney and Waste Action co-founder Richard Smith calls that accusation "ridiculous": "I am a competent lawyer," he said. "I can make a hell of a lot of money doing other things than this." (John Craig, "Sewage suits rile East Side towns", Spokane Spokesman-Review, Apr. 5)(Mar. 3 council meeting minutes, town of Wilbur)(PDF). See also Jul. 23, 2001 (first item).

Giving him due credit: "John Kerry yesterday told students at Howard University that he doesn't support financial reparations for blacks, saying it would only divide the nation and 'not heal the wounds.' ... His answer received marked applause from the audience in the reading room of the historically black university's Armour J. Blackburn Center in Northwest."

On the other hand: the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee "also committed to the creation of a post for an assistant attorney general for environmental justice" and opined "that nearly 25 percent of children in Harlem have asthma partly because 'all of the trucks' traveling through New York City are routed through the neighborhood," a sentiment open to doubt not only because of the high share of trucks that use other routes into and out of the city, but also because truck emissions, like air pollution generally, have sharply declined over the same decades in which urban childhood asthma rates have increased. (Brian DeBose, "Kerry opposes slavery reparations", Washington Times, Apr. 16).

Anniston lawyers' fees

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Plaintiff's lawyers cut a $300 million deal with Monsanto spinoff Solutia to resolve a long-running toxic-tort case in Anniston, Alabama. Under the agreement approved by the court, 27 lawyers are going to split $120 million, with $29 million going to Johnnie Cochran's firm (Aug. 29 and links from there; much more) and $34 million to Jere Beasley's Montgomery-based law firm (Dec. 1, 2003; Nov. 16, 1999). "Once the lawyers and other expenses are paid, the awards for each of the Anniston plaintiffs will average $7,725, though some will receive more if their health damages are shown to be greater." Locals are furious. ("PCB Case Payouts Roil Alabama City", AP/Washington Post, Mar. 24; Jessica Centers, "PCBs plaintiffs demand answers", Anniston Star/MSNBC, Mar. 24; Ellen Barry, "Lawyers' fees eat up much of settlement over toxic chemicals", Los Angeles Times/Seattle Times, Apr. 14). More: Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health is dubious about the science underlying the Anniston claims ("The case of the mute scientists", Washington Times, Feb. 27, 2003, reprinted at ACSH site). Update Dec. 6: Forbes covers aftermath; overall settlement reported at $600 million with lawyers taking $234 million.

Parachuting in without actually touching toe? This time it's a toxic-tort case in central Florida: "She has never set foot in Hillsborough County's rural Plant City, but her name alone is influencing news coverage, attracting clients and conferring credibility to illness reports." The suit alleges that Coronet Industries' phosphate plant is responsible for a wide range of ills, including those of the lead claimant's 3-year-old son, who suffers from autism and language disorders. (Ron Matus, "The Erin Brockovich effect: influence, inference", St. Petersburg Times, Apr. 11). For much more on Brockovich, see Mar. 16, Jan. 3 and links from there, and our Oct. 2000 treatment.

"What the World Needs Now Is DDT"

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"[W]hat really merits outrage about DDT today" is its underuse, as millions die annually of malaria for lack of the reviled pesticide, writes New York Times editorialist Tina Rosenberg. Commentators such as ABC's John Stossel got to the story first (see CEI, Todd Seavey), but the Times may be more effective at reaching those who can do something about the state of the law (New York Times Magazine, Apr. 11).

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