What If You Developed Cancer As The Result Of Benzene Exposure? By Attorney John Peterson

On behalf of Peterson, Berk & Cross, S.C.

A potential client approached us in early 2009 on referral from another trial firm. Our client had worked on the site of a plant that had manufactured gas from coal from the mid eighteenth century until approximately 1960. A known byproduct of manufacturing gas from coal is benzene contamination. The utility which owned the plant sold the property in 1966. During the time our client worked as a maintenance mechanic on the property, it was being used as part of the public water plant for a medium-sized Midwestern city. Our client worked there from the mid-1970’s until the city built a new water plant in 2001. In 2006, our client was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (MM), a rare leukemic cancer of the bone marrow, which will likely kill him.

Fortunately, the three year statute of limitations started running at the time of our client’s diagnosis of cancer, rather than at the time of his exposure to the benzene. We had to research possible legal theories of recovery and draft a legal complaint that laid out these theories demanding relief from the huge corporation responsible for polluting the land. We had to do all this before the statute of limitations ran in June 2009. We discovered that there were two basic, applicable legal theories, which lawyers call “claims for relief” or “causes of action.”

A complaint was drafted and served on the utility corporation. We maintained that the utility was negligent at the time they ran the plant for polluting the ground in the first place. They compounded their negligence when they failed to disclose to the city seeking to expand its public water plant that the land was contaminated with carcinogenic, toxic pollution. We claimed that by leaving the land in its toxic condition at the time of its sale, the utility created a public nuisance which endangered the public in general and tragically harmed our client in particular.

Battling a large, corporate utility is extremely expensive and enormously time consuming. It is impossible for any firm without a successful track record in complex litigation to get involved in such a crusade. During the course of the litigation, we asked for and received thousands of pages of documents related to the original plant. While sifting through the documents, we learned what the utility knew about the site after they sold the property, and what they knew about the inherent danger to humans caused by the toxic contamination produced there. The fact that the documents had been shuffled as to date and subject matter before we received them, made our research especially difficult. Our staff spent hundreds of hours sorting through the documents. During that process, we studied the full history of the gas plant site and learned that the utility was fully aware of the monster they had created and hidden from public view.

Many depositions were taken from expert witnesses in Milwaukee, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Epidemiologists, toxicologists, industrial hygienists and industrial historians were all involved with developing evidence. Mediation was scheduled prior to the jury trial. We were painfully aware that the entire financial future of our client and his family was at stake.

The mediation was held before a retired trial court judge with tremendous experience as a trial lawyer, and continued for months. Our efforts were successful. Although the corporate utility insisted, as part of the agreement, that the amount of the settlement be kept confidential, we are pleased that though our client can no longer work and his wife had to halt her nursing career to care for him, they face a stable financial future. This result made all time we spent, the separation from our families and the risking of large amounts of our own resources, seem very worthwhile.