Hartford gasoline vapor cases compete for advantage

By Steve Korris | Aug 18, 2006

As two teams of attorneys struggle for the right to represent the citizens of Hartford living above an underground lake of gasoline, three related lawsuits are creating an energy crisis for three Madison County judges.

In one case, Missouri attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Daniel Stack to certify them as representatives of all who live above the gasoline.

In another case, Circuit Judge Lola Maddox awaits briefs in a case that Illinois attorneys filed for individuals rather than a class.

Now the attorneys in the case before Maddox have filed a new class action suit, without dropping their individual suit.

In an Aug. 11 complaint they declared preliminary settlement of all claims of residents that gasoline vapors have reduced the value of homes.

They named Premcor Refining and Equilon as defendants.

In three days the Missouri team opposed the settlement.

Chief Judge Ann Callis faces the delicate task of assigning the new suit to a circuit judge. As of Aug. 17, she had not assigned anyone to it.

The class action suit, led by plaintiff Katherine Sparks, started in 2003. Norman Siegel of Kansas City leads her legal team.

The suit with individual claims started in 2004. The Goldenberg firm in Edwardsville handles that case.

Siegel's team gained an advantage last year when Stack certified Sparks as class action representative, but the advantage disappeared when Stack agreed to reconsider.

On May 16 Stack granted leave for the Missouri attorneys to amend their class action complaint.

While Stack weighed his decision on class certification, the Goldenberg firm seized the advantage.

The battle of Hartford began in small town fashion, when a Goldenberg plaintiff told a Sparks plaintiff about settlement negotiations.

On July 14 Siegel asked Stack to stop the negotiations.

At a July 17 hearing Goldenberg attorney Stan Faulkner asked Stack to allow 120 individuals to intervene in the Sparks suit.

Each attorney told Stack that Hartford residents would suffer irreparable harm if the other legal team represented them.

Stack told them an order on class certification was forthcoming.

On July 31 Siegel associate Teresa Woody asked Stack to extend the deadline for an amended complaint until ten days after his decision on class certification – a decision he had not reached.

On that date Siegel sent a letter to Premcor attorneys at Bryan Cave in St. Louis, warning that negotiations with members of the Sparks class were contrary to class action procedure and jurisprudence.

"We very seriously doubt that Judge Stack (or the appellate courts) will endorse any settlement that excludes counsel for the putative class," he wrote.

He expressed willingness to negotiate in good faith and wrote that in the meantime he would proceed with whatever was necessary to protect the integrity of the class.

Jim Bennett of Bryan Cave wrote back Aug. 3 that he understood Siegel and Goldenberg had a productive meeting.

He wrote that he saw no legal authority for Siegel's positions because no class had been certified.

Several months ago he tried to negotiate with Siegel and offered a detailed scientific presentation "demonstrating Premcor's relative lack of culpability for your claims," wrote Bennett.

"You advised you were not interested in such an approach."

Siegel wrote back Aug. 4 that Bennett's letter was wrong and self serving.

He told Bennett not to represent that he made an offer to settle the Sparks case. He wrote, "You never counter offered, or made any offer to show us your science."

Also on Aug. 4 Equilon attorney Richard Greenberg of St. Louis wrote to Siegel that he would discuss a settlement with him after reaching it.

"If a class settlement is proposed, I am confident that you will not be shy in your views and we can listen to your points at that time," Greenberg wrote.

On Aug. 8 Siegel team member Philip Graham of St. Louis filed a motion that prodded Stack for an immediate ruling on class certification.

Graham wrote that defendants circumvented Stack's oversight by negotiating through another case.

He wrote that Hartford citizens were "abandoned by the legal process designed to protect them."

He wrote that Stack said on July 17 that he would decide class certification in a couple weeks.

"More than two weeks have passed since that hearing," wrote Graham.

He wrote that he was mindful of Stack's tremendous volume of work, but that defendants had used the delay to circumvent the process.

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