More than 300 Burbank residents will accept a $5 million settlement from Lockheed Martin Corp., their lawyer said Tuesday, ending four years of litigation by residents who say they got sick from the aerospace giant’s release of toxic chemicals into the air, soil and ground water.
But the settlement--which could average as little as $3,000 per claim after legal costs and lawyer fees--was criticized as paltry in comparison to the $60 million Lockheed Martin paid in 1996 to settle similar claims from 1,357 Burbank residents.
“Everyone would have liked a bigger settlement, no question about it,” conceded Thomas Foley, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney. “But there is a potential risk” the cases might be thrown out on legal issues before the trial begins.
In deciding whether to settle, the plaintiffs had to consider not only the legal risks but also a long-standing threat by Lockheed Martin to try to recover the millions of dollars the company has spent in defense costs from the plaintiffs, if they lose.
“The reason that people are settling, it’s not because it’s a great settlement, but people are afraid of losing their homes,” said Lynnell Murray-Madrid, one of 16 plaintiffs who voted against accepting the settlement.
Despite its offer, Lockheed Martin is not admitting liability. The company, which once said it would refuse to settle the case, now says settling is cheaper than paying trial costs.
“The bottom line is that we were able to prove there was no cause-and-effect relationship” between Lockheed Martin’s chemical releases and the plaintiffs’ injuries, spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer said, referring to an earlier court ruling that dismissed 140 of the more than 300 claims by residents.
The settlement, however, will include those 140 cases (which are on appeal) and about 200 other claims awaiting trial in state court.
Rymer declined further comment, saying the settlement must still be approved by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carl J. West in Burbank. West is scheduled to review the agreement Nov. 10.
“Until this is entered officially in court, and until we have heard what Mr. Foley and the judge have to say, we really need to reserve comment,” Rymer said. “It’s not really a done deal.”
In addition to the $60 million payout to residents, Lockheed Martin has paid former workers $33 million to settle claims they got sick from exposure to toxic chemicals the company used during decades of defense and aerospace manufacturing. The company has never admitted liability, however.
A separate lawsuit against Lockheed Martin in federal court in Los Angeles, involving different plaintiffs, is unaffected by the settlement in the state case. Plaintiffs’ attorney Bruce L. Simon said Tuesday that settlement talks are underway, but Lockheed Martin has not made an offer in that case.
On Tuesday, Foley said he notified company officials that his clients would accept the company’s settlement offer. Foley has declined to say how much each plaintiff will get after court costs and attorney fees. According to figures provided by one plaintiff, however, the settlement would average about $3,000 per family.
The settlement will be divided among the plaintiffs based on a number of factors, Foley said, including how long they lived in Burbank, how close they lived to Lockheed Martin’s factories and the kinds of illnesses they have suffered.
Without the settlement, Foley said, many of the claims may have been dismissed next month.
Lockheed Martin has argued the plaintiffs waited too long after learning about the potential dangers of living near the Lockheed Martin plant to file their lawsuits.
Based on previous decisions, West, the judge, could find that anyone who had a newspaper delivered to their home between 1984 and 1994 should have known about Lockheed Martin’s toxic releases, so they missed the one-year statute of limitations to sue the company.
If the cases were dismissed, the plaintiffs could be held liable for Lockheed Martin’s legal costs, Foley said.
“It’s obviously an issue,” he said. “Most of our clients are elderly and own their own homes,” which they could lose if Lockheed Martin sought to recoup its costs from them.
But Lockheed Martin’s Rymer said the company would never seek to force people to sell homes.
“That’s nonsense. We have not been in this litigation to take people’s houses,” she said. “We have been in this litigation to defend ourselves, to establish that we have not put people at risk, and we feel we have accomplished that. And we will continue to defend ourselves against meritless claims.”
Murray-Madrid, 44, and her sister, Erin Baker, 43, said they voted against taking the money, but they were outvoted by the other plaintiffs and the settlement was accepted for all.
“I think the settlement is a ridiculously low amount of money,” Murray-Madrid said.
She asserts that her medical symptoms--from seizures to Hodgkin’s disease--can all be linked directly to the chemicals that Lockheed Martin has admitted releasing into the environment.
“I refuse to back down to Lockheed,” she said, “no matter how powerful Lockheed is.”
Murray-Madrid believes Lockheed Martin is settling with residents before the public learns more about the extent of problems with chromium 6. A byproduct of metal plating, chromium 6 is a known carcinogen when inhaled and a suspected carcinogen in drinking water.
“Chromium 6 is on the verge of exploding” as a public health issue, Murray-Madrid predicted.
Lockheed Martin’s settlement offer comes as government regulators are investigating elevated chromium 6 levels in the San Fernando Valley’s drinking-water supplies.
Lockheed Martin has admitted releasing toxins, including chromium 6, into the environment while building airplanes, but has maintained that residents were not exposed to them in levels sufficient to have caused their alleged illnesses.
The former Lockheed Corp. built airplanes in Burbank for six decades. Then, in the early 1990s, Lockheed merged with Martin-Marietta and moved its headquarters to Bethesda, Md.
In 1986, the federal government declared the underground water basin in the east San Fernando Valley around Lockheed a Superfund cleanup site. Since then, Lockheed Martin has spent $265 million to clean the soil and water underneath its old factories--most of which has been reimbursed by the federal government and other smaller polluters.