Judge Hala Y. Jarbou, United States District Court Judge in the Western District of Michigan, granted plaintiffs’ motion for final approval of a $54 million settlement on March 29, 2023. The settlement resolves a class action lawsuit filed against defendants 3M Company and Wolverine Worldwide Inc.
The lawsuit alleged property damages such as diminished home values, and nuisance resulting in inconvenience and loss of enjoyment in their properties, linked to PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances) contamination. The settlement concludes years-long contentious litigation and provides direct payments and additional relief to settlement class members.
The largest settlement payments will be disbursed to those Kent County property owners whose personal drinking water wells had the highest levels of PFAS compounds. Defendants, 3M and Wolverine, agreed to pay the monies as part of the settlement.
“Many of the residents of Kent County were traumatized when they discovered that their properties had been contaminated with these chemicals,” states Weitz & Luxenberg attorney Paul F. Novak, who represented the plaintiffs and class members in the matter. “Today, they can at least take solace in the fact that the companies have agreed to compensate them for that contamination and the Court has approved it.”
PFAS refers to a class of manmade chemicals not found naturally in the environment. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane (PFOS), the two most studied and most frequently used PFAS compounds, are known to be hazardous to human health and the environment.
Studies have concluded that exposure to PFAS can cause adverse health effects, including, but not limited to: detrimental developmental effects on fetuses exposed during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations); cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney); liver effects (e.g., tissue damage); immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity); gastrointestinal effects (e.g., ulcerative colitis); thyroid effects; and other conditions (e.g., cholesterol changes).
3M — an American multinational technology company that manufactures consumer, industrial, and safety products — began creating PFAS compounds in the 1940s and 1950s for the purpose of incorporating them into 3M products.
The class action complaint alleged that, by the late 1950s, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based shoe manufacturer Wolverine began incorporating PFAS-containing Scotchgard, produced by 3M, into its own operations at its tannery in Rockford, Michigan. Through these operations, plaintiffs and class members alleged, Wolverine routinely dumped PFAS-containing waste in various locations, or dump sites, across Kent County.
The full scope of the resulting PFAS contamination has been difficult to measure, as PFAS — also known as “forever chemicals” — break down slowly, remaining in the environment long after dumping has occurred. As the disposed chemicals leached into the surrounding soil and groundwater for decades to come, residents of Kent County located nearest these dump sites were unaware of the silent, but growing, danger. By the time the public learned of the problem, these “forever chemicals” were already spread throughout their soils and drinking water.
Weitz & Luxenberg, along with the Miller Law Firm P.C. and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, filed the first class action complaint against defendants 3M and Wolverine in December of 2017 in federal district court in the Western District of Michigan.
The lawsuit claimed that 3M and Wolverine’s PFAS-containing waste had leached into soils and drinking water supplies of homeowners and impacted the homes’ property values, potential appraisal, and resale. Affected Kent County residents were also forced to refrain from using water for all daily household purposes, including but not limited to, drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes, and washing dishes, which caused significant inconvenience and expense.
Nearly five years after Weitz & Luxenberg filed the first complaint, the parties came to an agreement with the execution of a final settlement. Judge Jarbou granted preliminary approval on September 19, 2022.
Paul F. Novak and Diana Gjonaj of Weitz & Luxenberg worked with lead counsel Sharon S. Almonrode of the Miller Law Firm P.C. and Esther Berezofsky of Motley Rice LLC in representing the class.
The team also included Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, Wexler Boley & Elgersma LLP, Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonanni & Rivers, and Sommers Schwartz.