Can the City of Stuart Case Change the Course of AFFF Lawsuits?

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AFFF Lawsuits

Since 2017, individual firefighters and military personnel, as well as municipalities, have filed AFFF or lawsuits against firefighting foam manufacturers. The plaintiffs claim that the chemicals found in these Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFFs) are so dangerous that they developed diseases like asthma, high cholesterol, and liver disease, but mainly cancer. 

Over the years, as many as 4000 AFFF lawsuits have been filed across US courts. With consolidated studies and discoveries, the lawsuit is finally ready to be presented for its first Bellwether trial before a jury in South Carolina’s Federal courtroom.

The case selected for the evidentiary battle in the initial trial is that of the City of Stuart vs. 3M Co. et al. The verdict, if given in favor of the plaintiff, could lead to a multi-billion dollar settlement, and will change the future of this litigation. But let’s understand how and why the City of Stuart case was chosen and its impact.

 

City of Stuart’s Water Supply System

The City of Stuart’s primary water source is the Surficial Aquifer, underlying the municipality. The Surficial Aquifer is accessible through 30 interconnected groundwater wells, each of which is further connected to a central water treatment facility.

At the facility, the water is softened, aerated, disinfected, and purified before being pumped into 500 commercial and 4,000 residential connections. Although the City of Stuart’s water treatment facility is equipped with advanced technologies to filter the water, it does not have the specialized purification technology needed to remove harmful chemicals like Per- or Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS).

PFAS is also known as the ‘forever chemical’ because it does not easily break down in nature or the human digestive system. This means its environmental and health impact can stay almost indefinitely. This same chemical had contaminated the City of Stuart’s water supply system, responsible for providing water to thousands of residents and businesses in the municipality.

 AFFF Lawsuit and Claims against Defendants

In 2016, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection checked the municipality’s water supply (as a part of a routine maintenance check) and informed the City of Stuart Public Works Department that the entire system was dangerously polluted with Per- or Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) way above (1000 ppt) the permissible EPA limit (which is only 4 ppt). The EPA considers even these permissible limits to be potentially hazardous.

After further investigation, it was found that the source of this contamination was the municipality’s fire rescue station called the Stuart Fire Rescue. The individual water supply wells in the fire station’s vicinity had shockingly high PFAS levels, thereby proving that the water supply was polluted due to firefighting foams used in regular firefighting training exercises.

As a result, the municipality filed a lawsuit against firefighting foam manufacturers in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Some of the defendants in this lawsuit included 3M, DuPoint, Chemgard, and Tyco Fire Products.

All the defendants mentioned in the City of Stuart AFFF lawsuit are manufacturers of firefighting foam products. These products were purchased and used by the municipality’s Stuart Fire Rescue. The case has been filed with the US court based on the following negligence theories –

  • The defendants were well aware of the health risks associated with firefighting foam products, especially prolonged exposure and bioaccumulation of the same. The claim is made with a full understanding of the fact that the defendants may not be aware for decades, but at least the past few years. Despite this awareness, they failed to warn the users of the health hazards, including the municipality and the Stuart Fire Rescue.
  • The defendants were also aware of the environmental impact of AFFF chemicals but did nothing to warn users of firefighting foam products, including the municipality and the Stuart Fire Rescue.

The trial outcome, if in favor of the plaintiff, will offer compensation for replacing the entire water supply system of the municipality, along with the health damage residents may have endured as a result.  

 

Heated War over the Issue of Causation

One major problem attorneys are facing with the City of Stuart case is the issue of causation. Causation refers to the connection between the cause and effect of a certain action.

When it comes to personal injury cases, the plaintiff must establish valid causation. That means they cannot simply state that the defendant was negligent in performing their duties. It is important to prove that the defendant’s negligence was responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries.

By definition of that, the plaintiffs of AFFF lawsuits are not trying to prove that firefighting foam causes health conditions like cancer, or whether the City of Stuart’s water supply was contaminated. They are trying to refute the defendant’s claims that there is no scientific evidence that their AFFF products led to the said water contamination.

As for the City of Stuart vs. 3M trial, the defendant has made tremendous efforts to render the plaintiff’s causation evidence as inadmissible on the basis of Daubert standards. Thankfully, this motion was rejected by the trial Judge. Now, the case’s outcome relies heavily on each litigation party’s expert testimonies. If the causation issue is proved before the court, the outcome will fall in the plaintiff’s favor. If not, the defendant will get the upper hand.

 

The Impact of This First Bellwether Trial

It may be a little surprising for some to find a municipality to be a part of the AFFF class-action litigation. However, it is important to remember that the firefighting foam cancer lawsuit is divided into two parts –

  • Water contamination cases (the City of Stuart case being one of them)
  • Personal injury cases filed by firefighters, military personnel, etc. with prolonged exposure to firefighting Class B foam chemicals (both PFAS and PFOS)

According to TorHoerman Law, the possible reason why the City of Stuart case was chosen for the first-ever AFFF lawsuit Bellwether trial is the large-scale damage caused to both the environment and lives. The City of Stuart, Florida roughly has a population of over 17,000 residents, and all were exposed to the health risks associated with firefighting foam chemicals.

According to the US Fire Administration, those exposed to chemicals like PFAS and PFOS (through air or water), especially in higher concentrations, are at risk of developing conditions like –

  • Infertility issues
  • Thyroid disease
  • Cancers of the kidneys, bladder, and testicles

Since the City of Stuart is the first case chosen to go for the Bellwether trial, its verdict will undoubtedly have a direct impact on all claims involving firefighting foam lawsuits. This is not to say that the outcomes will be legally binding in every case.

But, the trial serves as a litmus test for how other cases may perform before the jury. Hence, it will influence settlement decisions and legal strategies for other cases in the class action.

 

Closing Thoughts

The City of Stuart vs. 3 M Co. et al Bellwether trials just took place last month. The South Carolina District Judge, Richard Gergel, has delayed the trial as both parties have decided to come to a final binding agreement, which will be disclosed in the near future.

The Judge will keep tabs on the agreement’s progress, and reschedule a trial if no favorable settlement is reached. Though 3M has not responded yet, plaintiffs are hopeful of a meaningful settlement in the near future.

However, 3M has already announced that it would completely stop the production of PFAS firefighting foams by the end of 2025 in light of strict legal scrutiny. It is estimated that the company will have to strike a deal of $10 billion for PFAS-related water contamination across US towns and cities. 

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