Judge rejects class-action lawsuit designation over Whirlpool contamination in Arkansas


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FORT SMITH, Arkansas — A federal judge says he won't certify a complaint against Whirlpool Corp. as a class-action lawsuit because he is not sure whether residents of a polluted Arkansas neighborhood or the company is the driving force behind it.

The Southwest Times Record reported Thursday (http://bit.ly/1CJD125 ) that U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III rejected a joint motion seeking class-action status and approval of a proposed settlement.

"It seems the parties have only engaged in settlement negotiations" rather than conducting discovery or otherwise pressing their sides of the lawsuit, Holmes wrote.

The proposed settlement would see Whirlpool give an "incentive payment" to people pressing the lawsuit for the entire group. Holmes said such language is present in "adversarial proceedings," but said that's not the case in the current lawsuit.

"The incentive clause raises questions about vigorous prosecution," Holmes wrote.

A degreasing solvent, trichloroethylene, leaked into groundwater near the plant between the late 1960s and early 1980s, reducing property values. Benton Harbor, Michigan-based Whirlpool closed the plant in 2012.

Whirlpool requested a ban on new water wells near the plant in 2013, renewing concerns that contamination had spread, and a lawsuit was filed in state court in May 2013. It was moved to federal court a month later, and in July this year plaintiffs and the company asked Holmes to OK a settlement.

Holmes singled out a lawyer whose "goal from the beginning was to compromise for less than the damages he believes are available, even though that attorney also assumed that liability for the TCE plume would not be hotly contested (by Whirlpool)."

The judge questioned whether a class action was necessary at all and didn't address the proposed settlement, which included:

—payments to property owners nearest the plant equal to their decrease in property values;

—$5,000 payments to property owners farther away;

—a ban on new wells in the area.

Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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