An appellate court on Tuesday tossed out $240 million in punitive damages awarded to people who said they suffered health problems stemming from a lead smelter in Herculaneum.
That sum was part of a $358 million verdict by a St. Louis jury against former owners of the smelter. The suit was filed by 16 plaintiffs who said they suffered from lead poisoning.
That award was on top of a confidential settlement reached before the trial with the smelter’s current owners, Doe Run Resources Corp.
The 2011 trial, which lasted three months, centered on the plant’s operation from 1986 to 1994 under former owners Texas-based Fluor Corp., Virginia-based A.T. Massey Coal and Missouri-based Doe Run Investment Holdings Co.
The jury returned a verdict of $320 million in punitive damages, which was $112 million more than the lawyers requested, according to the appellate court’s ruling.
That was in addition to $38 million in compensatory damages.
Of the $320 million, $240 million was to be paid by Fluor, $48 million by Massey Coal and $32 million by the Doe Run Investment Holdings Co.
The three companies appealed.
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals Eastern District tossed out Fluor’s portion of that judgment, citing an error stemming from instructions to the jury, and sent it back for “further proceedings to assess punitive damages against Fluor,” the ruling says.
The court affirmed the rest of the damages.
The appellate judges “clearly recognized the harm the children suffered,” said Mark Bronson, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
He was reviewing the court’s 180-page ruling on Tuesday afternoon, but said he would absolutely go to trial again to seek damages from Fluor if necessary.
Brian Mershon, a Fluor spokesman, said the company was reviewing the court’s decision and had no further comment.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said their clients, who grew up near the smelter, lost IQ points and had other health effects from lead poisoning.
Lead is a neurotoxin that interrupts normal brain development and has been linked to behavioral problems in children.
Adults can tolerate higher levels of lead than children but can still suffer health problems.
Decades ago, the smelter filled the air of the company town with pollution so heavy, it sometimes made it impossible to see even across the street.
But it also has been a core part of the town’s identity, providing jobs and tax revenue since it was built in 1892.
The smelter in Herculaneum shut down in December. It was the last place in the country where lead taken from the ground was processed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the company “made a business decision” to close instead of installing pollution control technologies needed to reduce sulfur dioxide and lead emissions as required by the Clean Air Act.
Doe Run said it saw no alternative to closing the plant because there isn’t another process for smelting new lead that would meet the air-quality standard, which it says is the most restrictive in the world.
It had hoped to build a new plant using a new, cleaner lead-production technology, but dropped the idea in 2012, saying the $100 million project was too financially risky.