RIVERSIDE — Nine companies responsible for dumping more than half the industrial chemicals at the notorious Stringfellow Acid Pits have agreed, along with Riverside County, to pay $43.6 million in damages, leaving only the state of California as the last major defendant in the case.
The settlements bring to more than $96 million the amount of damages that defendants have agreed to pay the 3,800 plaintiffs--all residents of the blue-collar community of Glen Avon, just west of here. The only company remaining in the suit is a now-defunct metal plater.
Glen Avon residents sued eight years ago, claiming that they were afflicted with physical injuries, mental distress or property damage because of their proximity to the chemical dump and the noxious fumes that they claim wafted into their homes and businesses.
The Stringfellow Acid Pits operated from 1956 to 1972 as a state-approved dumping ground where about 200 companies and individuals dumped 35 million gallons of chemicals, some known to cause cancer, into unlined ponds across a 17-acre former rock quarry.
About $53 million in settlements have been awarded to the plaintiffs by General Electric, aluminum manufacturer Alumax Inc., and quarry owner James B. Stringfellow, among others.
The state has begun cleanup of the Stringfellow site under a court order stemming from another case.
The most recent settlement, on Friday, is significant because these nine companies "dumped 60% of everything that went into Stringfellow," said the plaintiff's lead attorney, Doug Welebir. "They were the biggest corporations, probably had the most to lose, and it was their attorneys who took the lead role in the defense of Stringfellow."
Friday's settlement was reached with McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell International, Rohr Industries, Alcan Aluminum, Montrose Chemical, Northrop, Quantum Chemical, Quemetco, the Deutsch Co. and Riverside County, which approved the operation. The amount of money to be paid by each was not disclosed.
Attorney Jim Bruen said his client, McDonnell Douglas, wanted to shed not just the 17 cases now on trial, but all 3,800 claims against the company.
"We had an opportunity to resolve this under terms that we thought were appropriate," Bruen said. "We're delighted to be able to do that."
The settlement, reached in concept Friday and still to be ratified by a panel of community members after a series of public meetings, will soon pose a new dilemma:
How should the money be distributed among the plaintiffs?
Riverside Superior Court Judge Erik Kaiser has appointed an expert in the distribution of large jury awards to take charge. He is Francis McGovern, a University of Alabama law professor who helped disburse $2.4 billion in claims paid to 100,000 women who sued A.H. Robins Co., maker of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine birth-control device.
McGovern said the initial challenge in Stringfellow will be "to find out the particular desires and needs of the individuals, find out who are most affected, and establish a system that they will feel comfortable with and that will lead to a satisfactory conclusion to the litigation."
The funds from the first $53 million in settlements were pooled by the plaintiffs to help finance their continuing legal battle.
Among the people wondering about their share of the judgment is Stephanie Curl, who has lived with her husband in Glen Avon for 11 years.
"I think the money should go to those who have lived here the longest and have the worst medical histories," she said. "I don't think there will be fighting among the people. Most of us weren't really counting on the money anyway.
"I had a miscarriage, but I can't attribute that directly to Stringfellow," she said. "There are people who have had definite medical problems and they should be the first in line to get paid. But even if we just get a couple of bucks, it will be fun to say we got a settlement.
"I'm just glad to see that there's proof that Stringfellow has been harmful and hazardous, so people will be more careful in the future," she said.
The lawyers from both sides will meet in Kaiser's courtroom today to officially sever the 10 defendants from the trial, which initially was expected to occupy the specially built courtroom into the summer. Lawyers had braced themselves for years of litigation after the first trial, involving the first 17 plaintiffs, was resolved.
Attorney Barry Goode, representing Rohr Industries, said the settlement is "absolutely not an acceptance of guilt" by his client. "There's no statement in the settlement agreement that one side was right or wrong. It was just a question of making peace in the face of a dispute."
New York attorney Melvyn Wiess, who has handled the agreements on behalf of the Glen Avon plaintiffs, called the settlement "a tremendous accomplishment."
Sacramento attorney Duane Miller characterized the settlement as "not unprecedented, but certainly ranking among the larger settlements in California history."
With the last of the nine large companies out of the picture, Wiess said, the case will focus on the state of California, which has been found in a succession of court rulings to be negligent in selecting and designing the toxic dump site, maintaining it and cleaning it up after the dangers were discovered.
The trial will continue, but the judge Friday gave the state's attorney a week's continuance so he could prepare to defend the case virtually single-handedly.
The issue being tried before the jury is whether the residents of Glen Avon were harmed by Stringfellow's chemicals.