Major victory for water companies in water contamination case

Sept. 10, 2007
The Court of Appeal, First District, determined a key legal issue addressing the circumstances under which water utilities are liable in alleged contamination cases in In re Groundwater Cases, 2007 Cal. App. LEXIS 1405. As the first case to directly address the issue, the Court decided that the exceedance of the drinking water standard (known as an MCL) is not the basis for liability. Liability could lie, if at all, only if a water utility violated the drinking water statutory and...

• Court of Appeal rules in favor of water companies in groundbreaking water contamination case; Court examines liability of water utilities for alleged third-party contamination

POMONA, CA, Sept. 4, 2007 -- The Court of Appeal, First District, determined a key legal issue addressing the circumstances under which water utilities are liable in alleged contamination cases in In re Groundwater Cases, 2007 Cal. App. LEXIS 1405. As the first case to directly address the issue, the Court decided that the exceedance of the drinking water standard (known as an MCL) is not the basis for liability. Liability could lie, if at all, only if a water utility violated the drinking water statutory and regulatory framework, and refused to obey an order of the Department of Health Services to not use a particular resource (e.g., well) for supply. Even if such a showing is made, plaintiffs must still prove a causal relationship between the exposure and the alleged personal injury and property damage.

According to Thomas H. Clarke, Jr. a partner at Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, who represented the City of Pomona's water utility: "This is a landmark decision and a major win for water utilities. It is the first time the courts have examined in great detail the liability of water companies in third-party contamination cases. This opinion places the onus on where it should be -- on those entities that caused the contamination."

Background:
Between 1997 and 2002, six actions involving plaintiffs in the Pomona Valley and 14 actions involving plaintiffs in the San Gabriel Valley were filed by more than 2,000 individuals against 10 governmental and PUC-regulated water utilities and over 100 industrial entities. The plaintiffs alleged that residents in both regions were being exposed for decades to contaminated drinking water, which adversely impacted intake walls and thus the drinking water of the utilities. The plaintiffs alleged a wide variety of harm, from wrongful death to property damage.

Clarke noted, "Some of the claims against the City were truly ridiculous, such as acne and obesity. However, it is important to bear in mind that the plaintiffs admitted that they had no evidence at all that any of the water utilities violated the statutory scheme, as required by the Court. In the case of my client, the City of Pomona, there was never a showing that any resident was served water that did not meet the drinking water standards at all times."

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