By Luke Brantley
Residents of Guin, Twin, Hamilton, Winfield, or any other residents of Marion County who have been affected by harmful chemicals such as PFAS may be entitled to compensation as part of the multi-billion-dollar settlement between 3M and numerous lawsuits from across the country involving the harmful effects of these forever chemicals.
Over the last few years, 3M has faced two lawsuits from within Marion County, and a multitude from without.
The Guin Water Board filed a lawsuit a few years ago against 3M after PFAS was detected in the city’s water source, which 3M settled for around $30 million in late 2021. That settlement also required 3M to provide new water filters and funding for a new water treatment plant.
Last year, a class-action lawsuit was filed by plaintiffs Justan Fleming, Breanna McGuire, Marlene Fleming and Patsy Moon (for themselves and on behalf of anyone else who was affected) against 3M, the water board and Benjamin Hightower (who owned a business involved in the disposal of the harmful chemicals).
The new lawsuit alleged that the parties named were responsible for damages after they either allowed the chemicals to leak into the water, or they continued to provide the water knowing it was contaminated. However, these other parties are all indemnified by 3M as part of the water board’s original settlement with them, meaning it was 3M who would ultimately be held responsible—at least financially.
As a result, that lawsuit was grouped together with numerous other lawsuits against 3M from around the nation, and that combined group of lawsuits is what 3M just settled for well over $10 billion as of last month but could end up reaching as high as $12.5 billion.
Attorney John Benochi of the Birmingham-based Benochi Law Firm has been meeting with people in the Guin and Twin areas to help them seek out part of that settlement if they’ve been affected, whether through harm to themselves or family members, or through damage or devaluation of their property.
Benochi, who represents Fleming and the other plaintiffs in their lawsuit, explained that the settlement is only one option, but the exact details haven’t been released yet.
“There are several options, really,” he said. “We can be part of this settlement if we like it. The specifics of the settlement are still in negotiations. At some point, we will know all the details of it and what’s going to come to Guin and the plaintiffs involved. We’ll take a look at it and if we don’t like it, we have the option of opting out and continuing the lawsuit. Just because there is a global settlement, does not mean my clients will be forced to accept it. It has to be beneficial for the people I’m representing to join.”
Benochi said that at this time, he encourages everyone who thinks they or a loved one (even those who have died) have been negatively impacted to sign up as soon as possible.
“There are a lot of people who have been affected by the pollution,” he said. “They might not even know. Some people are sick and don’t know where it’s coming from or what caused it, but we have the science now. There were more than 4,000 cases involved in this lawsuit.”
He added that Guin wasn’t the only area that could have been impacted by the chemical pollution.
“Some of this may have affected the people of Hamilton and the people of Twin,” he said. “My understanding is that at some point, both cities acquired their water from Guin. Who knows what has happened in all these households, how much it’s costing them, how much it’s costing the cities. Winfield is included, as well.”
Benochi said he has been relying on word-of-mouth to arrange meetings or calls with people who think they might have been affected and be eligible for settlement funds. So far, he said he’s met with at least 100 individuals over the course of about a year, all with various ailments or examples of how the leaked chemicals devalued their property.
“I have seen firsthand the effect of this tragic pollution on the people of Guin, especially,” he said. “I’ve visited homes where I’ve seen three generations of people, some of whom have already died, who didn’t have a family history of cancer who develop it all of a sudden.”
Benochi also said that the pollution in the water not only effects individuals and families, but also the cities since that pollution may drive away potential industry moving into the area, which can lead to loss of opportunities and property devaluation. He said he wants to help educate people about the dangers they have been facing and what they can do about it.
“It’s not always the case as we have here in Guin,” he said “What we have here is a corporation that has been part of this community since the 50s that is very knowledgeable about the effects of their product on the surrounding community and did not do a good job of educating their people. They let them drink the water, bathe with it, cook with it, everything you’re supposed to do with it. In some cases, they’d intervene with some families here and there, but the entire community did not know and still does not know what’s going on.”
The $12.5 billion has not been divvied out yet, and Benochi explained why it’s important that anyone who wants to sign up needs to do so quickly.
“The plaintiffs’ executive committee is meeting sometime (last week), which I’m not part of,” Benochi said. “I don’t have anywhere near the volume of plaintiffs as some of these other lawsuits have. But we will eventually be apprised of what the decisions are, and we’ll make decisions based on our own individual cases. So, at some point I will submit my list of clients and I will negotiate a certain cut for them.
“That’s why it’s important that we get as many people to sign up as possible. the more people we have, the more clout we have compared to every other town, who are all chasing after those dollars in that $12.5 billion pot.
“I will consider the settlement as it pertains to the people of Guin. But if they just want to give us pittance, I don’t want it. We will object it, opt out, and continue suing. I know they’re not going to want to go to court on this one. They’re flat-out guilty of what they’re being charged with, and they’ll probably have to settle at some point. My priority is to make sure that the people of Guin come out on top.”
Benochi also mentioned that he is in talks with another law firm, Morgan and Morgan, who is in talks to join with his firm on this suit. He also mentioned the two firms have discussed the possibility of hosting town hall meetings in places like Guin, Twin, Winfield and Hamilton where people can come to learn more, but nothing has been finalized.
He also said that anyone who seeks part of this settlement can have up to two claims, one for personal injury or a lost loved one, and another for property damage.
According to the EPA, people can be exposed to PFAS by working in occupations such as firefighting or chemicals manufacturing and processing, drinking water contaminated with PFAS, eating certain foods that may contain PFAS (including fish), swallowing contaminated soil or dust, breathing air containing PFAS and using products made with PFAS or that are packaged in materials containing PFAS.
Symptoms of PFAS exposure can include reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women; developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes; increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers; reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response; interference with the body’s natural hormones; and increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.
Anyone who thinks that they might have been affected by PFAS and similar chemicals in the water can call the Benochi Law Firm at (502) 257-3700, or by visiting their website at www.benochilaw.com.
Benochi said it would be helpful if people who are interested can bring as much information as possible, such as medical record and other important documents that can provide evidence of their claim.
See complete story in the Journal Record.