With Trials Looming, Missouri Lead Giant Hopes Legislature Will Limit Liability
A lead mining company is heading to trial next month, but this week, they’re hoping to hedge their bet.
The Missouri legislature passed a bill earlier this year that would limit the amount of damages the Doe Run Company would have to pay if a jury found the company guilty of negligence. Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, but Republican lawmakers are aiming for an override this week.
Updated 9/13/13 10:33 AM
Doe Run is the largest lead mining company in the western hemisphere, and they operate in southeast Missouri.
Doe Run has several large mine waste piles. And in the 90s and into the early 2000s, Doe Run sold chat, or sand, from those piles. That sand contained harmful amounts of lead, and is the subject of upcoming lawsuits.
The bill would cap punitive damages in lawsuits like these at $2.5 million. For some perspective, a jury ordered the previous owner of the Herculaneum smelter to pay $320 million two years ago, saying the company was responsible for the lead poisoning of children.
Attorneys suing Doe Run in the upcoming trial declined to speak with St. Louis Public Radio since the trial date is nearing.
“I don’t know if you have children or have ever filled up a sandbox, but you generally buy bags of sand from your local garden center. And Doe Run was including lead waste in those sorts of products," Sharon Jones with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys said. "They certainly knew better.”
Doe Run sharply disagreed.
“Doe Run never sold or marketed chat specifically for use in sandboxes, through local garden centers or otherwise," Doe Run spokesperson Tammy Stankey said. "(Doe Run) tested the sand in sandboxes in St. Francois County for lead content, and the sandboxes were removed where appropriate. Chat and tailings have had many uses over the years, and are still sold and used for certain purposes today, with USEPA approval... The company has never sold this material for uses that the environmental or health authorities disapproved.”
In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency wrote that “Doe Run allowed and profited from the inappropriate use of contaminated mine waste materials, even though it was aware of the lead content and its potential negative impacts on human health and the environment.”
The EPA said Doe Run was aware of the problem in 1992, but didn’t stop until it was ordered to do so by the EPA in 2003.
Uptick In Lobbying, Campaign Contributions
“That’s not the way a court system should work,” Governor Jay Nixon said, when asked about the bill. "Coming in after the fact, after you’ve been found to be somebody who has undergone processes which have endangered the development [of] kids, with lead poisoning? And we’re going to limit your liability later? That’s just not the way to run a judicial system.”
Doe Run has stepped up its lobbying game to try to get this bill passed. They hired on seven additional lobbyists, and contributed $25,000 in campaign contributions this year, which is markedly more than they have in previous years.
I spoke to Doe Run’s vice president of law, Matthew Wohl, and asked him why the decision of how much a company should pay if they’re negligent should be decided by lawmakers -- and why a jury wouldn’t be capable of making that decision.
“Well, I don’t think they’re incapable of determining," Wohl said. "But this isn’t the only example of punitive caps in Missouri. Punitive damages is really a matter of public policy and it’s absolutely within the purview of the legislature to decide what’s best for the state of Missouri.”
Doe Run Leaving The Lead Belt?
Wohl said Nixon mischaracterizes the company, and that the bill is important for Doe Run’s survival in Missouri. He said without protection from large punitive damages, the company may have to leave.
Wohl pointed out that the company employs about 1,500 people in Missouri, and contributes about $1 billion to the state economy.
“We have to manage our liabilities," Wohl said. "If we can’t put some reasonable bounds around this litigation -- that we think is unwarranted and unfair – to give us the opportunity to fight and defend ourselves in these cases, it’s hard to know what the future holds.”
When asked about those jobs, Nixon said lead is important, and that he wants the industry to succeed. Nixon called Missouri the “lead mining capital of North America," and said Doe Run is bluffing.
“The lead is here," Nixon said. "They’re not going to go down two miles in the ground, and take the richest lead vein in North America and move it to New Jersey or wherever. It’s here.”
Benefiting One Company Or The Entire State?
Nixon also said that it’s not appropriate for a bill to single out a company for benefit. Republican House Speaker Tim Jones disagreed with the characterization.
“All legislation should be of some benefit to the entire state," Jones said on the Politically Speaking podcast. "I would argue that this bill is going to be a positive impact on the entire southeast region. I don’t view this as special legislation. I view the Governor’s veto as a special interest veto. I think it was done for the plaintiff’s trial bar.”
Jones said the veto could be overridden this week. It originally passed 15 votes short of what they would need to override in the House, but some lawmakers have indicated that they have changed their minds after thinking about the company’s economic impact.
Doe Run received a big win on Wednesday evening, when the Missouri legislature passed its law. Numerous lawmakers changed their votes during the summer. In the weeks leading up to veto session, Doe Run added three more lobbyists -- bringing the total to 11. And as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Virginia Young reported, one of them has close ties to one of the Representatives who cast a deciding vote.
She had initially voted against a bill limiting lawsuits against the Doe Run Co. But on Wednesday, Hubbard joined the Republican majority in overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the bill.
One day earlier, her son, Rodney Hubbard, had gotten a lobbying job with Doe Run, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel