Plaintiffs' Attorneys Hold Talks for $16M Settlement

By Heather Cole

Plaintiffs' attorneys had to reach peace with each other as well as two defendants to come up with a $16 million proposed settlement in a lawsuit over an underground gasoline lake in Hartford, Ill.

The settlement agreement calls for the money to be given to current and former residents of the Village of Hartford for medical and property claims arising from the four-million-gallon gasoline lake, allegedly caused by leaking oil pipelines and refinery spills. Potentially 2,000 people could make a claim, but not nearly that many claims are expected, said Norm Siegel, a plaintiffs' attorney with Kansas City-based Stueve Siegel Hanson.

The proposed settlement also calls for Stueve Siegel and Edwardsville, Ill., firm Goldenberg Heller Antognoli Rowland Short & Gori to each receive half of about $5.3 million in plaintiffs attorneys fees to distribute to the six firms in the case.

A Madison County circuit court judge will have a hearing July 15 to decide on final approval of the settlement.

The settlement amount is about double that of an agreement reached in 2006 by Goldenberg Heller attorneys with defendants Premcor Refining Group Inc. and Equilon Enterprises, now part of Shell. The earlier settlement had been opposed by attorneys with Stueve Siegel and three other Missouri firms, who had said in court documents that the suit filed and settled in 2006 was a copycat version of a suit filed three years earlier that had been awaiting class action status.

The four Missouri firms had said of the earlier settlement that it was a so-called reverse auction, a tactic in which defendants seek out a plaintiff who is willing to give them the most favorable terms in exchange for substantial attorney fees. Once a settlement receives final approval, other cases involving the same defendants and same issues die. Goldenberg refuted that claim.

While the amount of settlement went up with the most recent agreement, the percentage of plaintiffs' attorneys fees went down to 33 percent from nearly 44 percent. The agreement also says a conditional certification of the plaintiffs as a class and appointment of class counsel would be vacated if the proposed settlement is ended.

The earlier settlement was terminated in February 2007 because of a dispute over scientific evidence, and the two sets of plaintiffs attorneys started talking soon after that, said Goldenberg Heller managing partner Mark Goldenberg, who represented the plaintiffs in the first settlement.

"We ended up working together to go back and strike a new and better deal," Siegel said.

Under the new settlement, if 10 or more of the plaintiffs opt out, Shell and Premcor can terminate the agreement. That compares to the 30 opt outs required for termination under the terms of the 2006 agreement. Plaintiffs also would be barred from bringing new lawsuits on the same claims against Premcor and Shell. The companies and several individual defendants also would be dismissed from the lawsuit and two other related cases.

Richard Greenberg, an attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale representing Shell, did not immediately return a phone call.

The agreement also calls for Premcor to provide science and other information from its fact and expert witnesses. That information could be important to ongoing litigation; defendants including Apex Oil Co. Inc., Atlantic Richfield Co., Sinclair Oil Corp. and BP Products North America Inc. remain.

"Once we get past final approval, it's garden-variety, aggressively fought, high-stakes litigation," Siegel said.

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