Dupont and Punitive Damages

 

Somewhere in your house or apartment is something that was made by the DuPont chemical company. In fact, something on your desk was probably made by DuPont. Probably even something on your computer. Normally when you think of chemicals the first thing that pops into your head is big barrels of solvents or paint thinner. But DuPont does plastics, they do materials, they do fabrics and just about anything that you can name. DuPont doesn’t necessarily sell products as much as they sell what the products are made of.

It’s hard to believe that they are only the third largest chemical corporation in the world, considering how commonplace their products are. Nylon, Kevlar, the first synthetic rubber, Polyester and Teflon are all household names that were invented by DuPont. They are an absolute giant of not just American industry, but worldwide industry.

Being a titan of world industry does not come with zero responsibilities, however. It should be remembered that DuPont is a chemical company, and not a free range organic poultry concern. Chemicals can be dangerous in almost every step of the manufacturing process. Citizens of a town called Spelter in West Virginia found that out the hard way. DuPont ran a zinc smelter nearby which produced both slab zinc and zinc dust, and by 1971 there was a toxic waste pile that stood about 100 feet tall. The idea that this pile could exist without sickening nearby residents is unfathomable.

 

The citizens of Spelter filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont, and after a series of losses and appeals on behalf of DuPont, the citizens actually won. In a settlement deal, DuPont offered to pay $70 million in damages and pay a further $80 million to establish a 30 year medical monitoring service for citizens who live around the smelting plant site. That might seem like a lot, but if you consider that in the original verdict that was subsequently appealed by DuPont, they were ordered to pay $380 million in punitive damages. And even after the West Virginia Supreme Court dropped that number to $196 million in punitive damages, there were still the healthcare costs for the victims to worry about.

So by settling, DuPont got off a lot lighter than they should have. While the health care costs were nothing to sneeze at, the punitive damages were what DuPont was worried about. And it seems like DuPont is always worried about punitive damages. They are members of the Chamber of Commerce, who support capping punitive damages. They are members of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, who also support capping punitive damages. As far as all of these groups are concerned, punitive damages (in other words, damages that are levied against a defendant to specifically hurt them financially as a reminder that laws and regulations are to be followed) are the bane of the existence of everyone who does business in America.

Except when they aren’t.

Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Kolon Industries Inc. lost a $919.9 million jury verdict to DuPont Co. over the theft of trade secrets about the manufacture of Kevlar, an anti-ballistic fiber used in police and military gear.

Jurors in federal court in Richmond, Virginia, deliberated about 10 hours over two days before finding Gyeonggi, South Korea-based Kolon and its U.S. unit wrongfully obtained DuPont’s proprietary information about Kevlar by hiring some of the company’s former engineers and marketers. The award yesterday is the third-largest jury verdict this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

If anyone is interested in the math, DuPont received $769 million more in punitive damages for trade secret violation than they paid out in punitive damages for poisoning an entire town for thirty years. This should give you an idea as to how the judicial system slants when it comes to the rights of corporations to earn a profit vs. the right of citizens to compensation for injury.

If it weren’t for the fact that it isn’t very funny, we would barely be able to suppress a laugh whenever one of these tort reform organizations talks about how “flawed” the justice system is. We currently live is a system where corporations wage hundred-million dollar lawsuits over dolls and bullet proof vests, and where corporations can feel no compunction about receive punitive damages themselves over trade secrets while howling bloody murder over having to pay significantly less for causing provable physical harm to people. This is a system where the legal protections are given to malpractice insurance companies rather than the victim of the medical malpractice. This is a system where the “People in Theory” (i.e. the corporations) are given all the advantages, and the actual, real, living people are left to struggle against “caps” and “limits” which effectively keep them from going to court at all. If you happen to be a corporation, there is nothing “flawed” or “broken” about this system. It’s perfect. It isn’t so great for the rest of us.

Greenberg and Bederman is apersonal injury law firm located in Silver Spring, Maryland. We are currently offering legal help to anyone in Virginia, Maryland or Washington, D.C. who has been injured or made ill due to the actions of a manufacturer or industrial corporation. This includes toxic waste exposure, lead exposure, or contaminated drinking water. If you or a loved one has been injured due to industrial pollution, contact Greenberg & Bedean for a free consultation.

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