Deflating a Case

A meager settlement has been reached in a lawsuit alleging that chemical releases from the TRW airbag plant near Queen Creek have been poisoning neighbors, animals and vegetation.

Plaintiffs had asked for medical monitoring, an injunction banning the plant from continuing to emit poisonous substances into the air and punitive damages for TRW's "secretive scheme" to hide the extent of the toxic emissions.

Instead, each of the six named plaintiffs will get $7,500 and their attorneys will receive up to $130,000 to cover expenses incurred during the yearlong litigation.

The agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix is subject to approval by the judge presiding in the case. And he won't rule until others -- namely, anyone who lived within five miles of the plant over the past 11 years -- are notified via newspaper of the settlement and have an opportunity to file objections to it.

Attorneys reached the agreement before the judge was asked to certify the lawsuit as a class action. Records suggest there were problems meeting the legal definition of a class. The settlement provides for residents other than the named six to retain their right to pursue individual claims against TRW.

Astrida "Bunny" Bertleson, one of about 8,000 residents who would have been included in the case if a class action had been certified, called the settlement "outrageous" and said the likelihood of further litigation is slim.

"It's virtually impossible for people to find a law firm willing to go up against a mega-mega-industry," she says. "The cards are stacked against a community and the citizens."

Bertleson, who lives two miles from the Germann Road facility, was featured in a New Times story ("Arizona's Worst Neighbor," April 12) that not only detailed the suffering and death of numerous animals in the area near the TRW plant, but also recounted the company's lengthy record of fires, explosions and violations of environmental laws.

In August, the company was charged criminally and fined $42,000 for a February fire that injured three workers. In September, the company was fined $12 million and ordered to pay more than $10 million more in remediation costs. That case, which stemmed from the illegal disposal of toxic wastewater, included provisions for new safety programs at the plant, increased scrutiny by government officials, the development of a reverse emergency notification system for the county and a public apology from TRW.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin