More money for Beachwood plaintiffs in Merced contamination lawsuit

September 8, 2011 

Sun-Star file photo by Jack Bland - Parts of the Beachwood-Franklin neighborhood was hit hard by flooding after a levee broke on the west side of Merced in 2006.

The plaintiffs in the Beachwood flooding and contamination case will get more money soon.

The case revolved around residents who claimed a plant near their neighborhood contaminated the air and water around them.

The city of Merced received $470,034.80 from an insurance carrier that pulled out earlier this year from covering the city's defense costs in the lawsuit. The money will be turned over to the plaintiffs in accordance with the settlement agreement, according to city officials. It will be in addition to the $1.5 million the city agreed to pay the plaintiffs to settle its part in the case.

Fresno attorney Mick Marderosian said the plaintiffs received the $1.5 million, which was applied toward outstanding costs to prosecute the case.

Earlier this year, Great American Insurance Co., the insurance carrier for the city, pulled out. To come up with the necessary money, the city decided to use sewer funds and reimbursements from the insurance carriers, which it kept in a separate account. That way, if the city had to make a settlement, there would be money to do so.

Checks from the $1.5 million settlement have been given out, according to Jeanne Schechter, chief deputy city attorney. And the $470,034.80 will be sent in the next few days, she said.

In the lawsuit, residents claimed a nearby plant, formerly owned by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., had contaminated the air and water around them for years. A flood occurred in April 2006 that also damaged property in the surrounding areas. The flood-related portion of the trial is set for next year in Federal Court in Fresno, Marderosian said.

In 2007, Marderosian filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 2,000 plaintiffs against the companies, the city of Merced, Merced County, Franklin County Water District (a public sewer company for the Franklin-Beachwood area based in Merced), the Merced Irrigation District and others.

The first phase of the three-part trial wrapped up at the end of March. A federal jury found the chemical hexavalent chromium had migrated into the Beachwood neighborhood via the air and through surface water in the canal. Hexavalent chromium, made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich," is a known carcinogen and toxin. The jury also found that the plant had contaminated the air for 25 years and that hexavalent chromium was present in the canal near the plant from 1969 to 1991.

"Inhalation of this chemical is a thousand times more potent and deadly than drinking it in the water," Marderosian said.

Greg Diaz, city attorney, said the allegations among several defendants varied. The case will continue for at least another year for some of them.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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