July 30 hearing to determine number of plaintiffs remaining in court against GOWC
A lawsuit filed over allegations of contaminated water against the Greater Ouachita Water Company, which has been dragging on for nearly six years, may soon take a step towards discussing the evidence.
An upcoming hearing on July 30 in the Fourth Judicial District Court could reduce the number of plaintiffs to 57.
Fourth Judicial District Judge Danny Ellender ruled in early 2017 that establishing barometer trials would require a clear determination of how many plaintiffs involved, where they live and how they claim to be affected.
At one point, more than 5,600 plaintiffs were involved in the lawsuit.
Lawyers on both sides of the case have expressed a desire to address the main arguments regarding water quality, but must first establish who is involved in the lawsuit and what their claims are.
Over the past three years, the number of active participants has declined for lack of sufficient responses.
Progress was delayed for a year while courts determined whether the complaints were a civil matter or a matter within the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Public Service Commission. As of late 2016, however, it clearly falls under the jurisdiction of the Fourth Judicial District Court.
Since the beginning of 2017, all the arguments have been linked to the discovery on both sides. The case did not enter the probationary part.
Tony Bruscato, who represents the plaintiffs, said GOWC provided a large amount of documents to its discovery requests, including hundreds of boxes of documents, without proper indexing or orientation.
When the lawsuit was filed, Inframark, then called Severn Trent, was hired to manage the water system. (Northeast Louisiana Utilities has been managing it since mid-2018.)
Lawyers for Inframark and GOWC argue they have responded to plaintiffs ‘discovery requests and say plaintiffs’ repeated failure to meet filing deadlines has impeded progress.
Deposits soar in June
On June 1, lawyers working for GOWC filed a petition that all defendants, except the 57 defendants who had filed full responses, should be dismissed from the case.
They argued that the Bruscato office submitted information for 857 complainants separately from the affidavits in which the complainant states that the information provided is accurate. They cited inconsistent dates, with adults signing for other adults without a power of attorney, and several minors who signed for themselves but without the signature of their parents or guardians.
On several occasions, they noted, complainants did not submit the required disclosure until after deadlines set by the court.
They asked the judge to award costs, including attorney fees which they said were created by the plaintiffs’ failure to provide accurate documentation on time.
On June 10, Bruscato filed a statement from a staff member, who is not a lawyer, outlining the process used by his office to obtain statements and file complainants.
Leeona Gilbert said the complainants appeared to fall into one of three categories:
- those with known medical conditions that doctors have attributed to drinking or using GOWC water
- those with medical problems that may not be water related;
- those who are apparently in good health “but who are at risk of developing disease in the future from chronic exposure to toxic chemicals”.
According to Gilbert, the answers to questions about physical injuries or the ability to provide documentation to support the claims were answered as well as possible by the plaintiffs.
She argued that GOWC’s attorneys were looking to fire some people who couldn’t answer all of the questions asked, and the defense seemed to choose a handful of questions that hadn’t been answered.
GOWC previously noted on several occasions that a database the two assistants agreed to, as built, routed complainants to subsets of questions based on how they answered the question. main query. Not all questions sent were intended to be answered.
The database was completed and the Bruscato office was trained in its use in March 2018. As of December 2018, no information on the complainant had been entered.
Bruscato argued that the database was unusable during a February 19, 2020 hearing and obtained court permission to file the documents on paper.
Ellender has set a deadline for all remaining responses as December 31, 2020.
On April 1, 2021, counsel for GOWC argued that they had only received around 57 or 58 final responses by March 31, but none before the deadline.
Also in June, Bruscato filed the affidavit of James Palmer, a chemical engineer who teaches at Louisiana Tech University.
Palmer cites documentation provided to him by Bruscato from GOWC internal communications in addition to water quality reports from government sources and his own research. He alleges that the levels of contaminants – including lead – are high in GOWC systems.
It also cites lead levels in at least one non-GOWC system, which includes Brownsville, Green Acres, Kiroli Darbonne, West Highway 80, North Monroe, South Monroe, Lakeshore Swartz, and Hillside.
Last hearing sets strict deadlines
A hearing was held on June 18 to debate recent written arguments. Ellender asked why Bruscato tried to enter Palmer’s information to discuss an inconclusive question. The judge said he was aware the case was important, but the information and allegations included do not begin to explain why some complainants missed the deadlines on time.
Ultimately, Ellender said the document could be presented, but that he was not going to consider an opinion that is only an affidavit at this point.
J. Michael Digiglia, one of the defendants’ lawyers, said admitting the document without court approval or the opportunity for opposition counsel to verify the proposed expert or his allegations was prejudicial. He noted that Bruscato had also provided copies of the dossier to the media.
He said they were asking for sanctions against Bruscato.
Ellender said the court feared Bruscato had already said he notarized the signed documents in front of his staff, but not him. All notarized documents must be signed in front of the notary.
Bruscato said it had to be done to meet the deadlines.
Ellender said that, despite everything, some of the documents provided on behalf of the complainants did not meet the minimum requirements.
At one point in the hearing, Bruscato said that if GOWC had agreed to accept responsibility for water quality, regardless of the issue of damage, it would have vigorously sought statements from its customers.
Ellender awarded $ 5,000 in legal fees and costs to each of the defendants – GOWC and Inframark – by July 30.
The issue of sanctions against Bruscato, whether for attempting to prejudice the case or for notaring documents that did not reach him, will be addressed at a later date.
How is the water now?View Consumer Confidence Letters for each GOWC Water System here
Ellender signed an order on July 13 dismissing an additional 760 plaintiffs for failing to provide final answers, notarized documents or affidavits.
With the exception of the 57 complainants who had filed full responses by March 31, all remaining complainants must file full, verified and notarized responses by July 30 or be removed from the case.
The next hearing for the lawsuit is set for July 30 at 9 a.m. at the Ouachita parish courthouse.
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