Two big companies dumped a poisonous chemical in the Ohio River. Lots of it. That poisonous chemical is called “C8,” and it gives people cancer. The companies knew the poison was dangerous, but they dumped it in anyway. And then they tried to keep the poison’s true nature a secret. Now, juries in Ohio are making those companies pay for what they did.
DuPont and Chemours Make Chemicals
DuPont is an international company headquartered in Chestnut Run, Delaware. It makes animal feed, seed, enzymes, flame-proof clothing, and bullet-proof clothing, among other products. But DuPont is best known for making chemicals. There’s a big chemical factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, called “Washington Works.” DuPont ran Washington Works from 1948 until 2015, when it transferred its chemical products division to a new company. The new company is called “Chemours.” Chemours took over DuPont’s chemical manufacturing division, and currently runs Washington Works where they make Teflon.
Poisonous Chemicals Dumped in the Ohio River
Teflon is a plastic used in a variety of products, like non-stick cooking pans. To make Teflon, DuPont used C8 (also known as Perfluorooctanoic or PFOA). C8 is a chemical used in the process of making Teflon. When DuPont was done with the C8, they dumped it into the ground on their landfill near Washington Works. They also dumped it into sewers which drain directly into the Ohio River. Unsurprisingly, by dumping C8 into the ground and Ohio River, DuPont poisoned the local water table with C8. Today, almost all of the local people and animals near Washington Works have high levels of C8 in their blood.
C8 Causes Cancer—What DuPont Didn’t Tell People
Scientists have now confirmed that C8 causes testicular and kidney cancer. Unfortunately, this wasn’t common knowledge in the scientific community until the last five years. Disturbingly enough, DuPont has known that C8 is harmful for about 60 years. DuPont has also known that C8 causes cancer for about 30 years. DuPont learned the dangerous nature of C8 as a result of its own testing. Despite its knowledge, DuPont intentionally kept the dangers of C8 secret from the government and public. Why keep this deadly secret from its own workers, customers, and government? DuPont executives feared that the company would make less money if people learned how dangerous C8 really is. So they kept their secret for as long as possible.
Juries Are Punishing Chemours Because DuPont Gave People Cancer
On January 5, 2017, an Ohio jury awarded a plaintiff who sued DuPont for dumping C8 which gave him testicular cancer, with:
- $2 million in compensatory damages
- $10.5 million in punitive damages
What’s the Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages?
- This is money the defendant must pay the plaintiff for the actual harm the plaintiff suffered.
- For example, imagine that defendant steals and then crashes plaintiff’s car worth $5,000. Compensatory damages to plaintiff from defendant for the car are $5,00, because that’s what the car’s worth.
- These go above and beyond compensating the plaintiff for the harm they actually suffered. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant to deter it from similar conduct in the future. Judges only allow juries to award punitive damages when they think the defendant did something really bad. Punitive damages are uncommon. It’s a big deal when a judge and jury think the behavior is bad enough to justify them.
- For example, imagine that defendant steals plaintiff’s cancer medicine worth $5,000. The jury thinks that stealing cancer medicine is really bad. The judge agrees. The judge and jury want to send a message to the defendant and the public: “don’t steal cancer medicine.” So the jury awards $5,000 in compensatory damages (because the medicine cost $5,000) plus $20,000 in punitive damages (because stealing cancer medicine is really bad). The judge allows all of these awards because she also thinks that stealing cancer medicine is really bad.
Punitive Damages Are Causing a Buzz
Now, let’s take another look at that January 5, 2017, settlement. The court awarded plaintiff $2 million in compensatory damages because that’s how much plaintiff’s medical bills for cancer treatment cost, plus the value of work plaintiff missed out on. The court awarded $10.5 million in punitive damages because the court felt that DuPont’s intentional dumping of cancer-causing C8 in the river was morally wrong. By awarding a high amount in punitive damages, the court is sending a strong message to DuPont and other companies that knowledgeably poisoning an entire population in the name of profit will not be tolerated.
The fact that the court awarded punitive damages has caused a buzz in the local and legal communities. Why? If the court awards punitive damages in one DuPont-C8-dumping case, they’re more likely to do it in others. Unfortunately, there are plenty of others. In fact, over 3,500 others who live near Washington Works drink the poisoned water and have already filed lawsuits against DuPont.
Chemours Is Getting Punished, and DuPont Could Be Next
DuPont dumped C8 in the Ohio River for 70 years, but Chemours will probably have to pay out in these lawsuits. This is because of an element of the corporate form called a “liability shield.”
What Does “Liability Shield” Mean and Why Does it Matter?
A corporation which owns a smaller corporation, shareholders, and people running the corporation (board of directors and officers) get what’s called a “liability shield.” If the corporation does something wrong, it can get sued, pay out lots of money, and even go bankrupt. But the parent company, shareholders, board of directors, and officers are generally shielded from liability. In most cases, the corporation will be held responsible for its misdeeds. But the individual people and entities behind the corporation will not be held responsible.
In this case, DuPont poisoned the Ohio River for over 70 years. But DuPont is smart. In 2013, it saw the writing on the wall. It saw that the C8 lawsuits weren’t going well and that the entity responsible for poisoning the Ohio River would soon be losing big money in court. So it made a savvy business move. DuPont made it so they aren’t the entity responsible for poisoning the Ohio River. In 2015, DuPont formed a new company called “Chemours.” DuPont transferred all its old chemical manufacturing products and business to Chemours. Now Chemours is in charge of making all of the chemicals that DuPont used to make—including C8. And Chemours gets all of the money from selling those chemicals. Most importantly, DuPont also gave Chemours all of the liability from the former DuPont chemical manufacturing business. This means that any harm that arose from what the DuPont chemical manufacturing division did, is now Chemours’ fault. By creating Chemours and transferring its chemical manufacturing department to Chemours, DuPont created a liability shield for itself. So legally, Chemours is now the scapegoat for all of DuPont’s former chemical manufacturing misdeeds. That’s why even though DuPont poisoned the Ohio River for about 70 years, Chemours will probably have to pay for these lawsuits.
There are exceptions to the liability shield. For example, DuPont will probably have to pay for punitive damages awarded against Chemours. But that is not certain.
No More C8
DuPont ceased production and sale of C8 in 2013 following an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which means C8 isn’t getting dumped into the Ohio River anymore. The bad news is that for many, the damage is already done. It’s time to make Chemours and DuPont pay for knowledgeably poisoning an entire community and ecosystem.
Stay tuned for more updates about Chemours, DuPont, and other trending topics in the world of defective products.