Legal Briefing: DuPont Still Liable for Its Poisons -- At Least for Now


A daily look at legal news and the business of law:

Parts of Massive Pollution Verdict Upheld, But Trial on Statute of Limitations Looms

Toxic waste accumulated in Spelter, W. Va., ever since DuPont opened a zinc smelter there in 1910. By the time the plant was demolished and and a major cleanup started in 2001, the waste pile had grown to 60 acres. In 2004, area residents sued, seeking additional cleanup, punitive damages, and monitoring of their health so any contamination impact could be detected and treated.

So far, including yesterday, the residents have been winning. DuPont (DD) had been ordered to pay a total of $382 million for the cleanup, punitive damages, and medical monitoring. However, yesterday's West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision reduced the overall damages DuPont had to pay to $283 million. And the company may yet escape without paying anything. A key issue in the case is whether area residents waited too long to sue. The trial judge had ruled on the issue, deciding no, the suit was timely, but yesterday's decision sends the issue to a jury.

Will the Soft-Money Ban Survive Citizens United?...

The Supreme Court's recent landmark decision on campaign finance, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, had a transforming impact on the electoral landscape in just the circumstances directly covered by that case -- independent election spending by corporations and unions.

Now, the case is being applied in other contexts as precedent. In the Republican National Committee v. the FEC, the Republican party tried to eliminate the $30,400 cap on how much any one donor could give to a political party. Noting that the Supreme Court, pre-Citizens United, had specifically upheld the ban, the District Court refused yesterday to strike it down, which cleared the way for a direct appeal to the Supreme Court.

We'll know soon if the highest court will take the case. If so, we'll discover just how much of the campaign-finance landscape the court is determined to reshape.

...The Limits on Contributions to Independent Groups Didn't

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled on another Citizens United follow-up case, Speech v. Federal Election Commission, in which the plaintiffs sought to eliminate the caps on how much individuals could give to independent groups that spend to directly support or oppose a candidate's election. In striking down the cap, the court recognized it was extending Citizens Unitedfrom spending limits to contribution limits but noted the key issue was the independence of the organizations from the candidates, not the spending/contributing distinction.

The Politics of Lawsuits Challenging Health-Care Reform

Who does the attorney general in a state represent? The people, or the governor? I would have thought the answer was obvious -- the people, just as the Justice Dept. represents the people, not the President. (The President has a separate Office of Legal Counsel.)

Nonetheless, the answer is a little more complicated, and a clear pattern has emerged: In states that have a Democratic governor and a Republican AG, or vice-versa, the pressure is on to drop or join the multi-state suit against health-care reform Congress recently passed. These tensions highlight just how politically motivated the underlying lawsuit is. The courts will decide whether the suit is also meritorious.

And in the Business of Law...

English law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is facing a racketeering charge for its representation of Grenada because its bills were really being paid by a Russian company in a corrupt relationship with the Caribbean country. The smoking gun? There's no way the impoverished government of Grenada could have afforded Freshfield's pricey sevices.