Lawsuit Over Water Contamination in Stuart, Florida Selected For First AFFF Bellwether Trial in June 2023

The city's lawsuit claims water contamination of its drinking water system occurred due to the use of toxic firefighter foam chemicals which leached into the water supply.

The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) lawsuits has selected a claim involving water contamination in Stuart, Florida for the first scheduled bellwether trial, which is scheduled to go before a jury in June 2023.

3M Company, Tyco Fire Products, Chemguard, Inc. and other manufacturers involved in the sale of AFFF face more than 3,000 lawsuits over water contamination and cancers caused by the firefighting foam, each raising similar allegations that the companies failed to disclose information about the risks associated with toxic per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) contained in their product.

PFAS chemicals have been used for decades in AFFF firefighting foam, which are now commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” since they can build up in the body and environment. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to the development of various types of cancer, including testicular cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and other injuries.

In addition to claims brought by firefighters diagnosed with cancer, lawsuits over water contamination have also been filed by local water providers, who have incurred damages attempting to remove chemicals that leached into water supplies, especially in areas around military bases, airports and firefighter training facilities, where AFFF was regularly released into the environment.

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Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

Exposure to firefighting foam chemicals may result in an increased risk of cancer for firefighters, military and airport personnel.

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Given common questions of fact and law presented in the claims, the AFFF lawsuits are currently centralized before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel in the District of South Carolina, for coordinated discovery, pretrial proceedings and a series of early bellwether trials.

Following a status conference held on September 23, Judge Gergel issued an order (PDF) indicating the first bellwether trial will begin on June 5, 2023, involving a complaint (PDF) filed by the City of Stuart, Florida.

The city’s lawsuit claims its public drinking water system, which supplies thousands of residents, was contaminated by PFAS chemicals. Much of that contamination is likely from AFFFs used by Stuart Fire Rescue for routine training procedures, which has left the city dealing with the costs associated with attempting to remove the toxic chemicals from the drinking water system.

Judge Gergel’s order calls for parties to propose joint or separate pretrial schedules by October 14, and a pretrial order for briefing all Daubert and dispositive motions by February 3, 2023.

PFAS Health Concerns from Firefighting Foam

PFAS were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s, because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, since then the chemicals have been linked to a myriad of adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

It is projected to take thousands of years for PFAS chemicals to degrade, and past studies have shown their ability to enter and stay in the environment and human body through the air, dust, food, soil, and water. Previous U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies have shown PFAS chemicals primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver, and could likely be detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population.

The chemical substances are used to manufacture a number of products, including some food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, fabrics, nonstick cooking pans, and other products.  However, it is perhaps most known for its use in firefighting foams used by military and civilian firefighters.

October 2022 AFFF Firefighting Foam Lawsuit Update

Early in the proceedings, Judge Gergel established the “bellwether” program that started with a group of water contamination cases going through case-specific discovery in preparation for a series of early trial dates that will begin in mid-2023.

While the water provider lawsuits move through the bellwether process, a growing number of firefighter cancer lawsuits continue to be brought by individuals directly exposed to AFFF during training and response exercises, adding allegations that the manufacturers should have warned firefighters that they faced a future risk of cancer.

The same manufacturers also now face an increasing number of PFAS water contamination lawsuits being brought by individuals diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer, testicular cancer, kidney cancer or ulcerative colitis, following years of drinking tap water that has been found to contain high levels of the chemicals from firefighter foam, particularly near military bases and other locations where PFAS was released into the water system.

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