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Lawyers seek to consolidate water lawsuits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As lawsuits continue to be filed over last week's Elk River chemical leak, attorneys in the cases say they should be grouped together and referred to the state's mass litigation panel.

At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court since a chemical leak from Freedom Industries on Thursday caused the loss of water service to thousands of West Virginians.

"We think it's important that the process start sooner rather than later to get everything organized," said Anthony Majestro, one of the attorneys who filed the expedited mass litigation request Saturday.

The lawsuits, which ask to be granted class-action status, have been filed on behalf of businesses forced to shut down during the state of emergency and all West Virginia American Water customers.

Plaintiffs want punitive damages and compensation for lost profits during the state of emergency.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis will decide if the cases meet the mass litigation panel's criteria.

"This is the kind of case the panel was established to deal with," Majestro said. "Instead of having four or five circuit judges, in who knows how many counties, and lawyers doing duplicative work."

On Thursday, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as "Crude MCHM," a chemical used in the coal preparation process, was spilled by Freedom Industries, a chemical distributor on Barlow Drive just upriver from the water company's intake.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told restaurants, bars, day care centers and other businesses with health permits in Kanawha and Putnam counties to close immediately.

Lawsuits like those filed over the chemical leak are a popular subject of jokes and a target for business groups that often criticize the legal system. But in West Virginia, even recent history shows that such lawsuits often bring to light details of serious public safety threats -- and often show lawyers stepping in where regulatory agencies have failed to act.

In the Mid-Ohio Valley, for example, federal and state regulators ignored complaints for years that the toxic chemical C8 from a DuPont plant was polluting area water supplies.

Lawyers for several local families sued, and the resulting cases prompted a massive health study, uncovered previously unknown dangers of C8 and helped force DuPont to phase out production of the material that was used widely in non-stick and water-repellant consumer products.

The C8 cases were brought, partly, by the Charleston firm of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Deitzler, which on Friday was among the firms to sue Freedom Industries.

Also, in the Kanawha Valley, lawyer Stuart Calwell and his firm have fought legal battles for years against Monsanto Co. over its emissions of dioxin from the production of Agent Orange, finally forcing the firm into a settlement that's providing medical monitoring and property cleanups for thousands of residents.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.Reach Ken Ward at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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