Frederick Co. jury limits award in tainted-water suit

June 04, 1991|By Mary Knudson and Liz Bowie

A Frederick County Circuit Court jury yesterday awarded nearly $113,000 to 36 people whose water was tainted by toxic chemicals. The amount disappointed the families seeking $8.5 million and delighted the company found guilty of the contamination.

The individual awards, ranging from $100 to $15,000, ended a two-month jury trial that had focused on nine Adamstown families and Trans-Tech Inc., an electronics manufacturer found liable a month ago for polluting their drinking water with trichloroethylene (TCE) and trichloroethane (TCA). TCE causes cancer in laboratory animals and is a suspected cause of cancer in humans.

Four plaintiffs sought nearly $2 million for mental suffering but were awarded nothing. The jury awarded the $112,850 for physical discomfort and annoyance.

Of the 38 who sought damages for physical suffering, two of the plaintiffs received no compensation.

Attorneys for Trans-Tech argued that the families suffered minimal nuisance and aggravation and that a few families should be compensated several thousand dollars -- the cost of installing filters to flush the chemicals out of their water.

"We are delighted," Trans-Tech lawyer James H. Hulme said yesterday after the verdict came in. "We think that the jury properly recognized that there was no damage in Adamstown but that there was inconvenience in using bottled water."

A disappointed Baltimore attorney, G. Macy Nelson, who represented the plaintiffs, said yesterday that he would meet with the families and that he expected to appeal the decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Because of rulings by two judges (the first one died during the longest trial in Frederick County history), Mr. Nelson said, "The jury heard only about 1 percent or 2 percent of this case. The judge had ruled most issues were not compensable under Maryland law."

Constance J. Pennington, 39, who received the highest award -- $15,000 -- said she learned her water was contaminated in

August 1985 after a health inspector left a note on her door telling her "a water problem had been detected in the area" and asking whether she would like her water checked.

It was the beginning of daily trips for water to Carroll Manor Elementary School a quarter mile up the road, Mrs. Pennington said.

Her husband, her two children and her sister used the water for cooking and drinking. "You don't know how much you need water until you can't go to the sink and draw it out," she said.

The daily treks to bring water back in plastic pitchers lasted six months until Trans-Tech began making bottled water available free to affected families. Meantime, the Penningtons paid $3,000 to install a charcoal filtration system to be able to use their water for bathing, Mrs. Pennington said. In July 1987, the families were hooked up to public water.

Mrs. Pennington said yesterday that she favors an appeal.

During closing arguments last week, Mr. Nelson spun a tale of broken marriages, children frightened by an unknown poison and women who became distraught over the fight for clean water.

For the two years preceding the public water hookups, nine families lived on bottled water for drinking, cooking and sometimes bathing, he said.

For one blind, handicapped woman who returned home each weekend from the Maryland School for the Blind, the simple act of taking a bath was a nightmare.

"In her one act of independence she would disrobe and take a bath" each Friday and Sunday, Mr. Nelson said. But the families had been advised to take short cool showers rather than hot baths, so that they wouldn't breathe the chemicals released into the air from hot water.

Sharon Green, who couldn't stand alone in a shower, would have a tantrum and become uncontrollable when her mother wouldn't let her take a hot bath. "What is it worth when someone takes your whole independence away?" Mr. Nelson asked.

He asked the jury to give her $500,000.

Mr. Hulme, the attorney for Trans-Tech, argued that science offered only weak evidence that the two chemicals caused cancer.

In addition, he said the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for TCE cannot be trusted because of political pressures on the agency from activist groups, such as environmentalists.

Mr. Hulme charged that the families had exaggerated their stories to "crank up the damages in this case."

Some of the families had had prior problems with their water, such as high levels of bacteria, he said, and the inconvenience for others was not as great as they portrayed.

Since 1986, when residents were told that at least 24 homes had TCE levels higher than the EPA drinking water standard, Trans-Tech has paid $875,000 in penalties.

Most of that money paid for the new public water line, and the company is continuing to clean up the ground water.

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