ST. LOUIS (CN) – A City Court jury awarded $38.5 million to 16 residents of Herculaneum who said owners of the town’s giant lead smelter exposed them to dangerous levels of lead. The 3-month trial continues to determine punitive damages.
The plaintiffs, ranging in age from 11 to 26, claimed lead poisoning from the smelter caused them to lose 3.9 to 6.6 points off their IQ and to suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which caused lower lifetime earnings.
Individual awards varied; each plaintiff is to receive between $1.5 million and $3 million. The verdict was for compensatory damages only.
The case concerned the smelter’s owners from 1986 to 1994, including Texas-based Fluor Corp., Virginia-based A.T. Massey Coal and Doe Run Investment Holding Co.
Company attorneys claimed the smelter operators acted responsibly. They said less was known about lead’s effect on children in those days.
Jack Quinn, an attorney for the defendants, asked the jury to consider whether “Back in that time frame, was ordinary care used?”
Quinn told the jury the plaintiffs were suing the wrong set of corporate owners. He said the jury should consider the medical and regulatory attitude toward lead at the time and that the threshold for lead poisoning was not as low as it is today.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys painted a different picture.
They produced an internal memo from 1987 that showed soil samples near the plant were many times higher than necessary to qualify for federal Superfund status, but the smelter did not warn the community about the dangerous levels until 1993.
They also produced a 1989 consultant’s report that advised against buying out homes near the smelter because such an action “would almost certainly invite a major class action suit,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The smelter in Herculaneum, 30 miles south of St. Louis, has been in operation for more than 100 years. It is the last lead smelter in the United States.
Doe Run Resources Corp., which took over from Flucor in 1994, has said it will shut down the plant in 2013 and will replace it with a new, more advanced smelter nearby.