After hearing nearly four months of testimony from water contamination experts, a Sonoma County jury took just two hours Thursday to reject a $600 million well-poisoning lawsuit filed by several west Santa Rosa residents.
The swift, 11-1 verdict was seen as a vindication for defendants Union Pacific Railroad and the former Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., who were sued in 2001 by residents near the tracks west of Highway 101 between Guerneville Road and College Avenue.
Thirty-two residents claimed the companies were responsible for potentially cancer-causing chemicals that contaminated the ground water and entered their wells.
Those who relied on water from the wells, in a county pocket near College Avenue and Clover Drive, sued the state water board, OCLI and Union Pacific Railroad after 29 private wells were discovered in 1999 to be contaminated with TCE and PCE. Both chemicals are suspected of causing cancer.
Defense attorneys contended the contamination was caused by two dry cleaning businesses in the immediate neighborhood, a-half mile from Frances Avenue parcels owned by the railroad and where OCLI solvents were found.
A first trial three years ago ended in mistrial when the judge sanctioned the residents? attorneys for violating several court orders. He also dismissed the water board and OCLI from the suit. An appeals court later overturned the sanctions and reinstated the case against OCLI, which has since been bought by JDS Uniphase of San Jose.
?The evidence just really strongly supported the position that no contamination from my client?s property migrated to the plaintiffs? property,? said John Barg of San Francisco, whose firm represented the railroad. ?I think that came through loud and clear to these jurors and it didn?t take them very long to see that.
?After a trial that long, it feels pretty vindicating,? he said.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Charlie Cochran of Santa Rosa, couldn?t be reached Thursday for comment.
Had jurors determined the companies caused the contamination, they would have been asked to decide whether monetary damages were warranted.
Before the first trial began, two land owners where the former dry cleaners operated, the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County agreed to settlements that amounted to $2.65 million.
In reaching their verdict Thursday, jurors needed to make one major decision before hearing any evidence of damages.
?The first question was whether or not any contaminants migrated from the railroad property to the plaintiffs? wells,? said Steve Mitchell, a Santa Rosa attorney for JDS Uniphase. ?Our position all along was that all the contaminated wells were from the dry cleaners.?
Because jurors voted 11-1 that the contaminants didn?t migrate into the plaintiffs? wells, they didn?t need to decide anything about whether any OCLI was responsible for any chemicals found on the railroad property.
In 1999, wells were found to be tainted with TCE and PCE ? trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Some residents with contaminated wells lived on bottled water for two years before they were connected to city water.
The residents sought $600 million in damages from the companies and public agencies that they claim were either responsible for the contamination or mishandled the hazard by not properly notifying the community.
Santa Rosa settled for $1.5 million and Sonoma County for $750,000. The owners of the property where the dry cleaners were located settled for $400,000.