Judge orders list of Abernathy PCB settlement names compiled

Sep 30, 2011 by

Circuit Judge Debra Jones listens to testimony in a PCB settlement claims hearing.

Circuit Judge Debra Jones listens to testimony in a PCB settlement claims hearing.

At a hearing Friday Calhoun County Circuit Judge Debra Jones ordered attorney Donald Stewart to prepare a report of all recipients of awards from the settlement of a lawsuit over environmental contamination in Anniston.

Jones ordered that an accounting of payments to plaintiffs in Abernathy v. Monsanto be filed as a court record, with names of minors and any medical information redacted. All other names and dollar amounts were ordered to be included in the accounting. She gave Stewart, who argued the case against Monsanto in 2003, until Tuesday to provide the accounting to the Etowah County circuit clerk.

Some plaintiffs in that suit have argued they haven’t received all they expected in the settlement, leading to the current effort. Friday’s hearing was just the latest milestone in that case.

The accounting had been due at the Friday hearing, according to an order Jones filed Aug. 22, but Stewart’s attorney, Alan Rogers, contested the publication, saying it invaded the privacy of Stewart’s clients to have their settlements made public.

One of the major complaints is the misallocation of money for the same medical conditions, argued attorney William Eugene Rutledge, representing a number of disgruntled plaintiffs unhappy with the way the money has been handled. Plaintiffs with similar medical conditions want to know that they were all treated equally, Rutledge argued. Stewart and his attorneys were trying to keep secrets from the claimants, he said.

But Rogers pointed out that all that information is available to the court to make a decision without endangering the privacy of the people awarded in the lawsuit.

“There is great concern in simply willy-nilly throwing this into the public domain and having people read their financial settlement, which they thought was so confidential,” Rogers said.

Jones, though, said there was no law and no confidentiality agreement barring the publication of the financial records.

The Monsanto case awarded $300 million to more than 3,000 plaintiffs who were affected by contamination of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, Monsanto manufactured in its Anniston plant for decades. Although it was settled, the case has never really gone away for people unhappy with the resolution.

Sarah Avery, who filed suit against Donald Stewart in 2004 — because she didn’t like “how he’s done the money” — was in the first row of seats in the courtroom. She arrived about noon for the hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. She was one of between 300 and 400 people who showed up for the hearing, Jones said.

The hearing was for informational purposes only, Jones informed the people in the courtroom.

“I want to resolve this issue once and for all,” Jones said. “We’re not going to have 3,500 separate lawsuits on any issue in this case.”

The attorneys for both sides were asked to bring proposed notifications for a later hearing to discuss the attorneys’ fees and contracts with the plaintiffs. The notification would inform all the plaintiffs that there will be a hearing and that they can participate or they can choose to opt out, Jones said. If they opt out, they cannot sue about the issue again, she reiterated.

Stewart’s attorneys provided a list of updated addresses of the original 3,500 plaintiffs. Jones ordered the attorneys to cooperate with the notification, with Rutledge’s firm filling out the addresses for the certified mail, to be proofed by Stewart and his firm. Then the letters could be sent out and responses documented.

Stewart’s attorney, Teresa Minor, also told Jones that a $2.5 million lien against the settlement fund for plaintiffs’ Medicaid and Medicare expenses should soon be lifted.

“The parties are in agreement that that should be dismissed,” Minor said. “The only thing we’re waiting on is the order from (U.S. District Court) Judge (Karen) Bowdre.”

Minor presented Rutledge and Jones with copies of all the court documents. Medicare has the right to appeal and must do so by Oct. 11. Until then that question will have to wait, Jones said.

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