September 13, 2016, PLLR E-Newsletter | The American Association For Justice Archive

September 13, 2016, PLLR E-Newsletter

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TCE contamination from ball bearing plant caused plaintiff’s autoimmune hepatitis

photo of person holding brackish water in beaker

Suit alleged that—in addition to toxic dumping—the defendants thwarted federal and state investigations into the contamination and denied responsibility. The jury awarded $20.6 million, including $13 million in punitive damages. Kirk v. Schaeffler Group USA, Inc.

Jodelle Kirk grew up in Silver Creek, Mo., just south of a large industrial plant in Joplin, Mo., where FAG Bearing Corp. manufactured ball bearings. During the 1970s and 1980s, the plant used large quantities of trichloroethylene (TCE) as a solvent to clean the ball bearings and for other purposes. Through dumping, burying barrels, and permitting leaks and spills, the plant allegedly released about 30,000 gallons of TCE into the environment, which contaminated the groundwater in Silver Creek and neighboring Saginaw.

In 1991, the EPA discovered hazardous levels of TCE, and federal and state authorities launched investigations that ultimately placed sole responsibility on the plant. 

In 2002, at age 14, Kirk was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, which was allegedly caused by the TCE contamination. The disease led to multiple hospitalizations and required her to take steroid medications, which caused steroid-induced diabetes, leaving her insulin-dependent for years. Although she no longer takes insulin, she is required to take Imuran, a drug used to treat cancer patients. The drug poses additional health problems and also prevents her from safely bearing children. Now 28, she faces a lifetime of Imuran use and complications both from the illness itself and the treatment she requires. She also faces an increased risk of cancer and will likely require a liver transplant later in life. A registered nurse, her work life has been greatly reduced.

Kirk sued FAG Bearing and its parent company, Schaeffler Corp. USA, Inc., alleging strict liability, negligence, and negligence per se. The plaintiff asserted that the link between TCE and autoimmune disease, including autoimmune hepatitis, is well established in the medical literature and by epidemiological studies. She presented testimony by a professor of microbiology and immunology who had spent nearly 20 years conducting animal studies and publishing peer-reviewed articles regarding the causative link between TCE exposure and autoimmune hepatitis. The professor testified that the plaintiff’s disease was clearly caused by her in vitro and childhood exposures to defendants’ TCE.

The plaintiff’s experts in hydrology and environmental engineering testified about FAG’s unsafe practices in dumping and pumping TCE into the ground and groundwater. They also testified about the groundwater contamination throughout Silver Creek and Saginaw, where Kirk lived and played.

The most recalcitrant company

In addition to the toxic dumping, the plaintiff contended that the defendants exacerbated the situation by thwarting federal and state investigations and denying responsibility. In fact, the plaintiff asserted, FAG was so obstructive that one governmental official described it as the most recalcitrant company he had ever encountered. Among other things, the plaintiff claimed, FAG sued other area businesses, alleging that they had caused the TCE contamination, even though courts later determined that there was no good faith basis for these assertions. The plaintiff’s experts also testified that FAG’s refusal to cooperate in cleaning up the TCE led to greater contamination and severe delay in remedying the contamination.

The plaintiff’s expert rheumatologist testified about how TCE causes autoimmune hepatitis in humans generally and about how the chemical caused the disease in Kirk specifically. He testified that she would most likely need a liver transplant in the future and that she would be unable to work in her profession as a floor nurse past age 50. In addition to the medical expert testimony, the plaintiff testified about the ways in which her autoimmune disease has affected her life and the great physical and emotional pain it has caused. She also presented expert testimony that her economic losses could total more than $3.3 million if she has a liver transplant by 2024.

The jury awarded $7.6 million in compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages. The court denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, and they have filed a notice of appeal.

Citation: Kirk v. Schaeffler Group USA, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-5032 (W.D. Mo. Mar. 21, 2016).

Plaintiff counsel: Kenneth B. McClain, AAJ member Michael S. Kilgore, AAJ member Andrew K. Smith, Jonathan M. Soper, Timothy J. Kingsbury, and Lauren E. McClain, all of Independence, Mo.

Plaintiff experts: Lorne G. Everett and James T. Wells, hydrology/environmental engineering, both of Santa Barbara, Calif.; Kathleen Gilbert, microbiology/immunology, Little Rock, Ark.; Thomas M. Zizic, rheumatology, Baltimore; and Terry Cordray, vocational rehabilitation, Shawnee, Kan.