Erin Brockovich wasn’t the only one to take on a big company that had harmed thousands of people with poisoned water. Rob Bilott took on DuPont for dumping PFOAs into a local creek, when it knew the chemical had adverse health effects, but Bilott’s background was very different from Brockovich’s.
Bilott spent eight years defending large corporations from allegations of violating environmental protection laws. He ended up on the plaintiff’s side by accident.
Some neighbors of Bilott’s grandmother had referred him to a local farmer whose cattle were getting sick and dying. The farmer had linked it to a landfill next to his property owned by DuPont. The company was dumping perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) into the creek that ran through the landfill and the farmer’s land. Because the landfill was upstream from the farm, the cows were drinking poisoned water. Not only did this destroy the farmer’s livelihood, but it was inhumane because the cattle were clearly suffering.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Bilott, the corporate defense attorney, filed a lawsuit against DuPont on the farmer’s behalf. The company denied everything, but Bilott was relentless. He learned everything he could about PFOA and how it worked. He obtained a court order for DuPont to turn over all the information they had on the chemical, its health effects, and what could the company determined to be a safe level of exposure to PFOA.
As so frequently happens, taking on the large company was no easy feat. As the biggest employer in the small, rural West Virginia, it sometimes seemed like Bilott and his client were fighting a losing battle. DuPont denied everything and blamed the cattle’s poor health on the farmer. No one took the farmer’s claims seriously and friends he had known for years started crossing the street to avoid him, saying they weren’t supposed to talk to him.
The farmer eventually settled with DuPont, but Bilott didn’t stop there. He found that many more people than just the farmer and his family had been affected by DuPont’s irresponsible dumping of PFOA. It had spread into the water of six districts and dozens of private wells at levels much higher than what DuPont itself had deemed safe. Tens of thousands of people had been drinking toxic water for decades.
Bilott faced a major obstacle in filing a class action lawsuit for all these people: PFOA was not a regulated substance. All he had to go on was DuPont’s own studies on PFOA. Of course, once DuPont heard Bilott was investigating the substance, they quickly “re-examined” it and determined safe levels to be exponentially higher than they had previously state. High enough to claim the level in the local water supply was completely safe.
Bilott was baffled, but not deterred. Under West Virginia tort law, a plaintiff only needs to claim she was exposed to a toxin. If she is successful, the defendant is required to fund regular medical tests. If the plaintiff becomes ill, she can retroactively sue for medical damages. In 2001, Bilott filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of all six affected water districts, including the two that lay across the Ohio border.
Meanwhile, the E.P.A. drew from Bilott’s research to conduct its own investigation into PFOA toxicity. In 2002, the E.P.A. announced it had found that PFOA posed risks, not only to those drinking tainted water, but to the general public.
In 2004, DuPont decided to settle the class action lawsuit and agreed to install filtration plants in the six water districts. It also agreed to fund a scientific study to determine if there was a “probably link” between PFOA and any diseases. If the study found such links, DuPont would pay for medical monitoring, but class members could not file personal injury suits against DuPont until the results of the study came back.
Filing multiple environmental lawsuits against a large chemical corporation might seem like career suicide for someone like Bilott, who works for Taft. Taft is a law firm that normally works on the defense side of those lawsuits, but Bilott’s employers stood by him through the whole ordeal. They maintained practicing as a plaintiff’s attorney can make them better defense attorneys. DuPont pointed out that, by pursuing these lawsuits against them, Bilott could be endangering Taft’s business by making other corporations question which side Taft is on. Bilott’s employers ignored these calls and never got in Bilott’s way.
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