ST. LOUIS • Sixteen people who were children and babies when they lived next door to a lead smelter in Herculaneum went to trial Tuesday with claims its owner did little to prevent dust from poisoning them and later causing issues like depression, learning problems and asthma.
The case against the Doe Run Co. and its owners and partners from 1986-94 is expected to last about eight weeks in St. Louis Circuit Court.
"A neighbor of any kind may not poison children," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Gerson Smoger, during opening statements. "If a neighbor does, they are responsible."
The plaintiffs range in age from 10 to about 25 years old now.
The suit is one of several filed over the years against Doe Run; some were settled out of court, dismissed or are still pending.
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Defense attorney Jack Quinn pointed out that the plaintiffs are successful and have jobs or are doing well in school, and some have attended college. He pointed out that lead poisoning standards have changed over the years and that lead poisoning levels in Herculaneum residents have steadily dropped since the 1970s.
"This is not a cause," he said. "This is not a case of society versus lead or society versus big companies."
He pointed out that the suits weren't filed until 2005. "If they were so evil and need to be punished," he asked, "why would they wait to sue?"
Because the case involves a specific period and alleges damages inflicted upon some plaintiffs who weren't even born during that time, the jury may have to figure out who would be liable during which years.
Smoger did not specify the actual and punitive damages his clients are seeking, although Quinn, said in his opening statement that each plaintiff is asking for more than $1 million.
Smoger said that the company knew lead was harmful to children and that company documents prove it considered buying out the houses in the town but did not out of fear of a class-action lawsuit. The smelter rented out homes it owned in Herculaneum but would not allow children under age 18 to live in them, he said.
"This makes it absolutely clear, undeniably clear, the partnership knew lead was dangerous to children," he said.
In October, Doe Run announced it would end operations at the smelter, the only primary lead smelter in the United States, by the end of 2013. Doe Run also announced it agreed to pay $65 million to correct violations of environmental laws at 10 of its lead mining and processing facilities in southeastern Missouri.