Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 13, 2006
Six hundred million dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is – in 2003, it seemed like the answer to the people of West Anniston’s prayers when lawsuits over PCBs contamination were settled for that amount.
But divide $600 million by 21,600 plaintiffs, and the astronomical figure starts to come down to Earth. Take away 40 percent for lawyers, and the money quickly dwindles.
The Tolbert v. Monsanto and Abernathy v. Monsanto lawsuits, which charged the chemical company with dumping harmful PCBs into west Anniston for decades, were settled in August 2003 for $300 million each. Most of those involved in the class-action lawsuits received their final personal-injury payments six months to a year ago.
But after the lawyers’ fees, hospital bills and overdue debts were paid, many claimants say they are back where they started – ailing, their bodies and homes still contaminated with the chemical pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl, and with no money left to solve the problems.
Although the Tolbert case had 18,000 plaintiffs and the Abernathy case had just 3,600, they were settled jointly for $600 million, $300 million going to each group.
Thomas Long, a Methodist minister who lives in west Anniston and was part of the Tolbert case, said the amount of settlement money should have been enough to permanently change the community for the better.
“It’s just like the system got the butter and the eggs and the sugar and the flavor out the cake (and) the flour was left for the people,” Long said. “We’re still in the same predicament, the case is over with, the settlement has taken place, the money is gone and we still are sitting in the same spot.”
Dividing the Money
Ed Gentle, the settlement fund administrator for the Tolbert case, said each plaintiff’s payment was based on three factors: the level of PCBs in a person’s blood, a medical interview with a registered nurse, and the number of years a person lived in the affected area.
The Abernathy case does not have a settlement fund administrator; the payments were handled by lead attorney Donald Stewart. Several calls for comment to Stewart’s office were not returned.
Gentle, a lawyer in Birmingham, said the average payment in the Tolbert case was about $7,000 to $8,000. Some of those with serious medical issues received more than $100,000.
“We wanted to pay claimants as quickly as we could, but we had to budget the money to make sure we had enough for everybody,” Gentle said. “So in a sense it was sort of a savings account from which they got paid three times.”
Gentle said every adult claimant has received the total amount of his or her payment; minor claimants will get their money when they turn 19, unless they have a medical emergency before then.
One major difference between the two cases is that Tolbert set aside money to fund a health clinic for 10 years. The Tolbert Health Clinic, which has two locations, on Noble Street and 10th Street, provides medical and dental care and prescription drugs for claimants. The health care originally was supposed to be free, but prescriptions costing more than $25 now have a co-payment.
“The way I saw it, it was their money and it was their decision (on how to spend it),” Gentle said. “On the other hand, you can think of the clinic as a long-term endowment that provides some safety net for the claimants … and that gives them a longer-term benefit than just the check.”
Curtis Ray, chairman of the claimants’ advisory committee and a claimant in the Tolbert case, agreed that the clinic was a major benefit for the people affected.
“The best thing that’s come from Tolbert right now is the clinic,” Ray said. “We’re working hard to keep it alive … trying to stretch the money, you know it’s much needed.”
Ray also praised Gentle for his handling of the funds. The clinic, however, is not available to those in the Abernathy case.
“I cannot utilize the clinic that I helped fight for,” said David Baker, executive director of the West Anniston activist group Community Against Pollution.
Where the Money Went
Jewell Parker received $159,000 in the Abernathy settlement. First $17,000 was deducted for Medicare, and then she moved a few blocks to Dooley Avenue because her old house was eaten away by termites.
After giving some money to her children and grandchildren, she said, her settlement check is spent. And she still has very elevated levels of PCBs and lead in her blood. It is difficult for doctors to remove PCBs from the body.
“I wasn’t off on any big cars or any of that,” Parker said. “Some of them did, some of them didn’t (spend the money wisely) … I don’t know, I was just happy with what I got.”
But many others did not think they received as much money as they deserved. Ray, the claimants’ advisory committee chairman, said he thought almost everyone should have seen larger checks.
“What I didn’t like about it is that other folks took a lot of the people’s money, such as Social Security,” Ray said. “I think everybody in the lawsuit should have got at least $250,000 a piece.”
He added that the people who died from what may have been PCBs-related illnesses before the lawsuits started received nothing. Because the cases – which were named after two of the plaintiffs and divided into a federal case and state case – never went to trial, the court never determined whether PCBs were the cause of the plaintiffs’ health problems.
Long, the minister, said that most of the people who were sick and dying were not able to make a dent in their medical bills with their settlement checks.
“The majority of the people that suffered the most from this thing did not receive enough money from the settlement to make the necessary changes in their lives to better their lives,” he said.
Both Ray and Long said the money was enough to temporarily help some people out, but not to change their lives in the long term. Long, who received $78,000, said much of his money has been spent on “a sack full of” medication. Ray did not want to disclose his settlement, but said it was “a very small amount.”
“The money was already gone (by the time you got the check), the little bit that we did get, it was gone for medical expenses that we had been suffering with,” Long said. “When we got it we had high hospital bills, high doctor bills, we had to pay that up and then the rest of it you had to buy medicine (because) you sick, your wife sick, your children sick.”
But others said that some people simply overestimated what their settlement would do, buying cars and houses and then not being able to make the payments.
“Many of the people did great things with the money and they still have a little left, but there were some that were ruthless and squandered their money,” Baker, the executive director of CAP, said. “But that was their money.”
Long added: “The little bit of money that you got, either you buy your house or car or whatever, and (when) you was through you didn’t even have money next year to pay them high gas bills that came on the next year.”
Baker said his organization held investment seminars for the claimants. He used his own settlement money to pay off his house and car.
“I still live right around the corner, I drive a 1994 Suburban, I’m not rich,” Baker said. “I did not ask for more than I deserved, and that’s what I got.”
Baker said he wished some people would have used their money to give $5 or $10 to CAP, which struggles to make the rent on its building on Cobb Avenue.
“A lot of people are thankful but not grateful,” he said. “Nowhere else in the country has anyone accomplished what we have accomplished in Anniston, Ala., and we are still trying to figure out how come Joe Blow got more money than I did, how come my brother got more money than I did.”
Far From Hollywood
In the movie “Erin Brockovich” the lawyers are the heroes, with Julia Roberts and Albert Finney winning millions of dollars for their clients and getting rich in the process.
But in Anniston’s decidedly un-Hollywood version, many plaintiffs say they thought their lawyers got more money than they deserved. Some of the plaintiffs in the Abernathy case even tried to sue their lawyer, Stewart, a lawsuit that was barred by Judge Joel Laird.
“I think that the lawyers and everybody else was misleading,” Ray said.
“It was enough money where the lawyer could have been paid and been fairly compensated and the people if they was given their fair share, the way it’s supposed to have been done they could have made adjustments and changes, relocated or whatever they wanted to do to get out of this predicament and made a new start,” Long said.
Forty percent is standard compensation for lawyers in class-action lawsuits. Baker, who said he received death threats when the settlement checks were sent out because of his role in bringing together the lawyers and claimants, said he respected the lawyers and thought others should, too.
“That’s why they went to school – we wouldn’t have gotten a dime if it wasn’t for the lawyers,” Baker said. “The question (of) is it done fairly, that’s up to the courts. The courts say it was done fairly, fine, I ain’t no judge, I ain’t no lawyer.”
Baker said that one of the purposes of CAP is to continue helping the community even after all the settlement money is gone.
“I can’t say whether (most people) are back where they started because any amount of money is an uplift for the time being,” he said. “We are not better off than where we were but we can get better if we stick together.”