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Modesto awarded $175 mil in contamination suit

Jun 14, 2006 | San Francisco Chronicle

A jury has hit two chemical companies with $175 million in punitive damages for failing to warn dry cleaners about the dangers of a solvent that contaminated underground water in the city of Modesto.

The San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded the city $100 million against Vulcan Materials Co. and $75 million against Dow Chemical Co. Tuesday. On Friday, the same jury assessed those companies and four other manufacturers more than $3.1 million to compensate Modesto for its costs in installing filters to keep the chemical, perchloroethylene, out of its drinking water.

The chemical, widely used in the U.S. dry cleaning industry, has been linked to increased levels of cancer in dry cleaning employees, Duane Miller, a lawyer for the city, said Wednesday. He said the city's lawsuit accused the manufacturers of keeping quiet about the dangers from 1978, when they received the first warnings from the federal government, until 1992, when they started telling dry cleaners not to dispose of the chemical in sinks or sewers.

"We have conduct that went on for more than a decade involving a chemical that was considered to be a known human carcinogen, with effects on a large number of people,'' Miller said. He said most of the contamination occurred from the 1960s until the mid-1980s, and cleanup is continuing at several sites in Modesto, one of which is a federal Superfund site, a designation reserved for the worst toxic pollution.

Vulcan Materials, in a statement on its Web site, called the verdicts "contrary to the evidence'' and said the punitive damages exceeded limits set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled recently that punitive awards generally should not be more than nine times as much as amounts awarded in compensation for losses.

The company said it was "vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues for post-trial and appellate relief.''

A lawyer for Dow Chemical was unavailable for comment.

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