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Billion-Dollar Case Comes to Alabama’s Poorest County

June 13, 1995

EUTAW, Ala. (AP) _ A multibillion-dollar legal battle over leaky pipes is raging in the poorest county in Alabama, a state with a growing reputation for small-town juries that like to stick it to big, rich corporations.

The place is Greene County _ population 9,943 _ where a dog-racing track is the main industry, half the population lives below the poverty line and the courthouse keeps the case file in a bulging cardboard box.

``Jurors in Greene County tend to lean toward the little folks,″ said Carol Zippert, publisher of the local newspaper, the Greene County Democrat. ``If it can be shown that there has been some abuse, I think the defendants would have something to worry about.″

Out-of-state lawyers have latched on to a lawsuit filed by a county commissioner, courthouse workers and other residents who contend water from defective polybutylene plumbing damaged their western Alabama homes.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys want to expand the lawsuit to include the owners of as many as 6 million mobile homes, low-cost homes and apartments across the country that are believed to contain so-called PB plumbing.

Attorneys say they are seeking at least $7 billion from Shell Oil Co. and Hoechst Celanese Corp., either by a nationwide settlement or a jury verdict. A third company with a relatively small role, DuPont, has agreed to a $120 million settlement.

The homeowners’ lawyers say there is nothing unusual about bringing such a big legal tangle to little Greene County.

``It’s a neutral turf, so to speak, where the plaintiffs and defendants can meet head-on and resolve this thing for everyone,″ said Pete Petroski, whose Houston firm represents 80,000 people with claims over PB plumbing.

The corporate attorneys cringe at the prospect of coming to rural Alabama.

``To center a piece of litigation where there may be several million class members nationwide in a little, rural Alabama county is not logical to me,″ said Shell lawyer Dan Hyde.

Just last week, jurors in rural Macon County returned a $26 million verdict against General Motors in the case of a former GM dealer who claimed the automaker drove him out of business.

Also last week, a Bullock County jury awarded $15 million to three people who claimed the Foremost Insurance Co. sold them fraudulent mobile home policies.

And Alabama’s Supreme Court last Friday upheld a 1994 Lowndes County jury’s $6 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. over a failed dealership.

The executive director of an organization pushing for reforms in Alabama’s civil liabiliy laws said trial lawyers are feeding off small-town distrust of corporate America.

``They bank on it,″ said Kathy Bowden of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse. ``It’s almost like Alabama has become a poster child for lawsuit abuse.″

In addition to the mistrust from small-town juries, corporate lawyers in the PB case say they also must deal with Greene County politics.

The judge who is hearing the case, Circuit Judge Eddie Hardaway, received $500 of his $3,790 in campaign contributions last year from the law firm of Selma civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut, who put the PB lawsuit together.

Hardaway did not return calls seeking comment. Chestnut speaks of the judge with an easy familiarity but denied having any undue influence.

``I’ve known Eddie all his professional life,″ Chestnut said. ``The only thing I can tell you Eddie is sure about is he sure as hell wishes this hadn’t come up in his court.″

Thousands of homeowners nationwide have filed suit claiming PB pipes leaked once they were exposed to chlorine and other chemicals in tap water. Manufacturers deny the pipes are defective and blame improper use or faulty installation.

A hearing before Hardaway has been set for next Monday to determine whether the case moves forward on behalf of the estimated 4.5 million to 6 million people whose homes contain PB plumbing.

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