W.Va. SC candidates taking in money from lawyers in high-profile case

John O'Brien Oct. 9, 2008, 10:00am




CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - Lawyers in a nearly $400 million case scheduled to be heard by the West Virginia Supreme Court have contributed thousands of dollars to two Democrats up for open spots on the Court.

Two of the six firms representing a class of plaintiffs who allege industrial giant DuPont polluted parts of Harrison County have given a combined $14,000 this year to Margaret Workman and Menis Ketchum, but nothing to Republican challenger Beth Walker.

Charleston's Allen Guthrie McHugh and Thomas, representing DuPont, gave $1,000 to Workman, who has shown a big lead in polls.

Justices Larry Starcher and Spike Maynard, in their last months on the bench, voted to hear a group of appeals stemming from the case. DuPont's zinc-smelting plant in Spelter is alleged to have polluted the surrounding ground and water with lead, cadmium and arsenic.

Charleston's Hill, Peterson, Carper Bee and Deitzler gave $5,000 to Ketchum, an attorney from Huntington who finished second in May's Democratic primary. The firm also gave $5,000 to Margaret Workman, a former justice who finished first.

Pensacola, Fla., firm Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor, gave $2,500 to Ketchum and $1,500 to Workman.

The $381 million award a Harrison County jury reached provides $55 million for remediation damages, $130 million in medical monitoring costs and $196.2 in punitive damages. Plaintiffs attorneys are estimated to be earning more than $100 million, also.

A date for arguments has not yet been set.

Mike Papantonio said the Levin firm has spent $8 million-$10 million during the lawsuit. He has criticized Gov. Joe Manchin for filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court urging it to review the case because of the large punitive damages award.

Records show Manchin consulted with DuPont before filing it, and Papantonio said similar findings would turn up.

"This story is not just about DuPont," Papantonio has said. "It's about other associated industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (owner of Legal Newsline) influencing the governor's office and influencing regulatory agencies and courts in West Virginia."

The $7,500 Ketchum received from the two firms is part of more than $160,000 in large contributions (more than $250) donated to him by plaintiffs lawyers, while Workman collected a total of $78,933.

Walker, meanwhile, has been backed largely by the business community and did not receive a single contribution from a plaintiffs attorney. Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love, a defense firm and her employer, donated $10,000 to her campaign, and Steptoe Johnson donated $5,500.

Of the seven highest civil verdicts in the country last year, three occurred in West Virginia.

One, a $404 million decision against Chesapeake Energy, led to the company not building a $35 million regional headquarters in Charleston. The state Supreme Court voted not to hear the company's appeal.

Papantonio and Starcher have also criticized Massey Energy for trying to affect West Virginia's courts. Company CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million supporting Justice Brent Benjamin in his 2004 race, and photographs surfaced last year of Chief Justice Spike Maynard in Monaco with longtime friend Blankenship.

However, the justices controversially overturned a $76 million verdict against the company (it is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court) but voted not to hear a costlier one ($220 million).

Starcher, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette, said at a hearing, "I think anything of this magnitude needs another look. I think we made a mistake not taking in the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel case. I think we made a mistake by not taking in the oil and gas case from my home county of Roane County."

DuPont wants a new trial or a determination that a former owner of the plant, T.L. Diamond & Co., should be held partly responsible for the jury award. Landowners who are part of agreements from the 1920s that forbid lawsuits against a company bought by DuPont have also appealed to get in on the award.

Benjamin recused himself from the case because his former employer, Robinson and McElwee, is representing T.L. Diamond.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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