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Biden Judge Rules that Proposed Class Action Against Corporations for Contaminating Drinking Water Should Proceed

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Rules that Proposed Class Action Against Corporations for Contaminating Drinking Water Should Proceed

Judge Margaret Guzman, nominated by President Biden to the federal district court in Massachusetts, held that a lawsuit by Massachusetts residents against 3M and other corporations for contaminating their drinking water and causing other environmental harm should proceed. Judge Guzman rejected the corporate defendants’ motion to dismiss, so that the case can go forward with discovery and possible certification  as a class action. The December 2023 decision was in Ryan v Greif.


What Happened in this Case?

In early 2022, a homeowner in Westminster, Massachusetts arranged for testing of the well water used at his home. As a complaint later recited, the results of these and other tests demonstrated an “environmental disaster” in the area. The well water, ground water, and soil in the area contained concentrations of PFAS that “dramatically exceeded” standards established by a state environmental agency. PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they do not degrade in the environment after discharge from  manufacturing operations. In this case, investigation indicated that manufacture of paper, fertilizer, and other products involving 3M, Seaman Paper Company, and other corporations was responsible for the contamination.

PFAS have long-term harmful effects on health, some of which “manifest years after exposure.”  These include developmental harm to young children, increased risk of cancer, suppression of response to vaccines and other immunological problems, decreased fertility, high blood pressure, and more.  The EPA requires some reporting on PFAS and is working on the issue but does not yet regulate their discharge as it does for most pollutants.  A complaint maintains that more than 200 Westminster are residents have been affected by PFAS discharge, and cannot safely drink or cook with their well water or eat fruits and vegetables grown in their soil.

 Thomas and Susan Ryan and other Westminster property owners and residents filed suit in federal court against the corporations. The relief sought by the plaintiffs includes compensatory damages for the harm they have already suffered, funding for a medical monitoring program to detect and treat medical harm expected in the future, and punitive damages for alleged intentional misconduct.

 The corporate defendants filed motions to dismiss the allegations against them prior to significant discovery or trial. Magistrate David Hennessy issued a report that recommended that most of the homeowners’ charges should go forward, and the court should consider the certification of the case as a class action. Judge Guzman reviewed the report and objections raised by the parties.


How did Judge Guzman Rule and Why is it Important?

 In a thorough 47-page opinion, Judge Guzman generally agreed with the magistrate and ordered that the case against 3M and the other corporations should move forward. Judge Guzman found that the facts alleged in the complaint could support the corporations’ liability under several theories, including negligence, failure to warn, and “willful and wanton” misconduct, and gave the residents the opportunity to prove these facts through discovery and trial.

 Perhaps most important, Judge Guzman agreed with the magistrate that the residents’ claims against several corporations under RICO, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, should go forward. Originally designed as a weapon to help combat and obtain damages relating to business activities of organized crime, RICO has become widely used in civil litigation where the required types of conspiratorial activity among enterprises can be proven. Under RICO, plaintiffs can recover treble damages – three times the amount of actual damages proven.  One commentator has noted that the magistrate’s recommendation on RICO was  “the first of its kind,” and that such use of RICO “has the potential to significantly expand  the liability of corporate defendants for alleged PFAS contamination” around the country.

 Judge Guzman’s decision is obviously important to the people of Westminster and their efforts to obtain justice for the harm to their health and environment that they contend was caused by big corporations. It is also significant because it serves as a national example and a precedent on the use of RICO and other theories to provide accountability for the harm done by corporations due to PFAS. In addition, the decision is an important reminder of the significance of promptly confirming high-quality Biden nominees like Judge Guzman to our federal courts.