Dueling lawsuit battle is hot potato for high court

Steve Korris Sep. 28, 2006, 1:50pm

SPRINGFIELD-A heated Madison County battle, the case of dueling lawsuits over petroleum vapors in the village of Hartford, has turned into a hot potato for the Illinois Supreme Court.

Attorneys from Missouri have asked the justices to overturn Circuit Judge Daniel Stack's Aug. 28 order granting preliminary approval to an Edwardsville's firm proposed settlement of a class action for Hartford residents.

The Missouri team skipped the appeals court and on Sept. 5 petitioned the Supreme Court for a supervisory order against Stack. At one point last year, the Missouri team won certification of a class action on behalf of everyone near oil refineries that deposited an underground petroleum pool beneath Hartford.

Attorneys at Mark Goldenberg's Edwardsville firm, who represented about 125 Hartford residents in individual claims, quietly negotiated a class action settlement with defendants Equilon, a Shell Oil affiliate, and Premcor.

The Missouri team learned of the deal when a Goldenberg client told one of their clients about it.

The Missouri team moved to block the deal and asked Stack for immediate certification of their case as a class action.

Stack denied the motions.

The Goldenberg firm filed a new suit for lead plaintiff Harry Goforth, incorporating the terms of the deal with Equilon and Premcor. The Goldenberg firm asked Stack for preliminary approval. He granted it and set a fairness hearing for January.

The Missouri team in their motion for a supervisory order apparently argued that Stack abused his discretion, though the court had not placed the motion in the public file as of Sept. 28.

The Missouri team also moved for an emergency stay of proceedings in Madison County.

Elizabeth Heller of the Goldenberg firm moved the Supreme Court Sept. 11 for summary denial of the motion for a supervisory order. She wrote, "The motion raises no issue for which the normal appellate process will be unable to afford adequate relief."

That same day Equilon attorney Gregory Mollett of St. Louis opposed the motion for an emergency stay.

He wrote that the Missouri team wanted "a new rule of litigation in Illinois that dueling lawsuits preclude parties from entering into a reasonable settlement if the clients of the first filed lawsuit feel that they are not sufficiently benefited."

He wrote, "After months of negotiations, a proposed settlement was reached with Equilon and Premcor that provides for $9.4 million in benefits to Hartford residents and attorneys' fees."

In a hint of big news to follow, he wrote that an administrative order of the Environmental Protection Agency and oil companies "is being implemented to undertake certain investigation, monitoring and remedial measures to address the contamination in Hartford."

Still on the same day, attorney Allison Price of the Missouri team, wrote, "If the court denies the motion after consideration, the underlying process will simply go forward at that time."

She wrote, "If the court grants the motion, as movant believes it must, all involved are spared a great waste of time, resources and confusion."

On Sept. 12, Justice Thomas Fitzgerald denied the emergency motion to stay the Madison County proceedings. On Sept. 13, Justice Charles Freeman turned down Heller's motion to deny the supervisory order.

On Sept.19, Heller wrote in an objection to the supervisory order that the Missouri attorneys "strained the bounds of ethical propriety."

She wrote that they sent notice to call a meeting about the proposed settlement and that they misrepresented its terms.

She wrote, "It was, at best, a back door attempt to obtain an audience with the proposed settlement class in Goforth."

She wrote, "They will file any motion and make any argument to prevent settlement class members in Goforth from getting the chance to evaluate the proposed settlement."

On Sept.20, Mollett wrote in an objection that village residents have begun receiving notice that they can receive their share of the millions in the settlement.

Mollett wrote that anyone who does not approve the deal can opt out or object at the fairness hearing.

The court has not set a date for a hearing on the supervisory order.

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