W. R. Grace Co. was responsible for contaminating two drinking wells in the industrial suburb of Woburn, a federal jury decided Monday, setting the stage for a second trial to determine if the pollution caused leukemia that killed six people.
The jury cleared another defendant, corporate giant Beatrice Foods Co., of any liability in the case.
The six jurors, who deliberated nearly 60 hours over 10 days, found that trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene were dumped negligently at the Grace site after Oct. 1, 1964, and substantially contributed to the contamination of the wells before May 22, 1979.
Eight families are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the deaths of five children and one adult and the illnesses of two other children stricken with leukemia that they claim was caused by the tainted wells, which have been demolished.
Grace, based in New York, operated a plant in Woburn that manufactured machinery for making shrink-wrap film.
The verdict was the first of three that may be rendered in the case. If, in the trial's second phase, it is determined that the chemicals contributed to the deaths or illnesses, a third trial could be held to assess damages.
The cases against Beatrice and Grace were substantially different because the Beatrice site was farther from the contaminated wells and proving its connection to the contamination posed more difficulty, said Jan R. Schlichtmann, attorney for the eight families.