Attorneys wrangle over representation in Hartford vapor case

By Steve Korris | Aug 1, 2006

Hartford residents who proposed a class action suit over petroleum vapors in their homes did not get a class action, but Hartford residents who filed a regular suit over the vapors have agreed to settle it as a class action.

The tables turned so suddenly that attorneys on the short end asked for an injunction to keep rival attorneys from signing a settlement.

Attorney Teresa Woody of Kansas City, Mo., told Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack that Hartford residents would suffer irreparable injury if other attorneys settled their claims.

Woody and six other Missouri attorneys represent Katherine Sparks and other Hartford residents who proposed a class action against Premcor Refining, Shell Oil and other oil companies in 2003.

Plaintiffs claimed the Premcor refinery created an underground pool of gasoline and that after each rainfall vapors invaded their homes.

They alleged damage not to their health but to the value of their homes.

Their attorneys moved to certify Sparks as class action representative.

In 2004 the Edwardsville firm of Goldenberg Heller Antognoli Rowland Short & Gori sued most of the same companies.

Attorney Randy Gori told the Alton Telegraph his clients did not want a class action.

He said, "There is enough individualized damages that we did not feel it prudent at this point to file it as a class action."

The Goldenberg Heller firm started with 65 plaintiffs. The firm now represents about 120 Hartford residents.

The Missouri attorneys gained an advantage last year when Stack certified Sparks to represent a class.

Stack's decision would have turned Goldenberg Heller's clients into members of the Sparks class, but the decision did not stand.

Apex Oil and Sinclair moved for reconsideration, and Stack granted it.

Stack did not decertify the Sparks class, but by taking it under advisement he weakened the position of the Missouri attorneys.

Attorneys at Goldenberg Heller seized the opportunity and negotiated with Premcor and Shell Oil on a settlement that would apply throughout Hartford.

The Missouri attorneys learned about the proposed settlement July 11, in small town fashion. A plaintiff in the Goldenberg Heller suit told a plaintiff in the Sparks suit that Premcor and Shell Oil agreed to a class settlement.

Three days later Woody moved for an injunction and a restraining order.

"If Defendants are permitted to stipulate to a 'settlement class' outside of the certification process, Plaintiffs are irreparably injured because they are denied the protections of that process," she wrote.

She wrote that Goldenberg Heller disavowed a class action, and she attached the Alton Telegraph article that quoted Gori.

"…it certainly raises the specter that class members' interests cannot be protected and will be insufficiently represented outside of this class action context," she wrote.

"Defendants blatantly seek to subvert the judicial procedure in which Plaintiffs have been engaged in this action for three years…"

She wrote that attorneys "have dedicated significant resources, in the realm of millions of dollars, to their cause…"

The counsel list on her motion included Kansas City attorney Norman Siegel and St. Louis attorneys Kevin Davidson, David Helfrey, Philip Graham, Allison Price-Appel, and Christopher Dysart.

Three days later Goldenberg Heller's plaintiffs moved to intervene in the Sparks suit.

Attorney Stan Faulkner wrote that his plaintiffs were more injured than the Sparks plaintiffs.

He wrote that not all of the Sparks plaintiffs owned their homes.

He wrote that the Sparks plaintiffs enjoined the defendants from negotiating a settlement, Hartford residents would suffer irreparable injury.

He wrote that the settlement would benefit all Hartford residents.

On the same day Premcor and Shell Oil opposed the motion of the Sparks plaintiffs for an injunction.

Ann Barron of Bryan Cave, in St. Louis, wrote that the motion ignored the fact that no class had been certified.

She wrote that the Sparks plaintiffs were still sorting out who was a proper defendant. She wrote that they asked to amend their complaint against Apex Oil and Sinclair.

"It is difficult to understand how these Plaintiffs can contend that a class can be certified where there is uncertainty even as to who the proper parties are," she wrote.

"Plaintiffs' motion is further based on the contention that the people of the Village of Hartford have somehow 'chosen' the particular group of lawyers handling this case to represent all Hartford residents," she wrote. "Not so."

She wrote that a competing case existed with far more plaintiffs and attorneys with far more experience.

"…if settlement negotiations are barred, it will most likely be years and years before any resolution of this case can be obtained," she wrote.

She wrote that her clients could settle with whomever they want prior to class certification in the Sparks case, whether on an individual or class basis.

She wrote that the motion for injunction contended that attorneys would lose the resources they devoted to the case.

"Indeed, this argument certainly makes it appear that counsel is more concerned with recovering their own expenses than providing significant and timely benefits to putative class members and relieving the Court's docket," she wrote.

In a footnote, she wrote that the Telegraph article did not support the position off the Sparks plaintiffs.

"…Goldenberg Heller did not believe it appropriate, at the time of the quotes, to file a class action," she wrote.

"Goldenberg Heller has never said that a settlement class action is not appropriate to obtain timely and significant benefits for the residents of Hartford."

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