CHARLESTON - When Wood Circuit Judge George Hill put his signature on a $107.6 million settlement between a class of Parkersburg-area plaintiffs and DuPont last year, attorney Harry Deitzler knew he had a gold mine on his hands.
Just not the kind most figured.
Rather than become an example of the jackpot justice for which some feel West Virginia has earned a reputation, Deitzler and his co-counsel decided the money would be better spent on the advancement of science instead of attorneys' bank accounts.
He calls the health study that has been created thanks to the settlement "a gold mine of data."
"Typically what happens with a settlement like that is the people split up the money and go home," said Deitzler, of Charleston's Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Deitzler. "I talked it over with the co-counsel, and we didn't want to do that.
"We represented a class of people. We got together and decided to use that money on something that would benefit all of them."
Born was the C8 Health Project, providing extensive physical testing by BrookMar, Inc., of approximately 70,000 individuals who may have been harmed by the releasing of a man-made chemical known as "C8" into the water system.
Approximately $72 million from the settlement has gone to fund the project.
Recently, results were made public that show elevated levels of C8 in the blood of more than 30,000 individuals from West Virginia and Ohio. Those tested lived in the water districts Little Hocking, Lubeck, Belpre, Tuppers Plains, Mason County and Pomeroy.
Deitzler said he has known of those results for a long time, and the most important numbers will come out in January, most likely, when the C8 Health Project will be complete.
"Something of this magnitude has never been done on any population anywhere in the world," Deitzler said.
Each of the 70,000 who were examined had their medical history's reviewed as well, and the tests go well beyond determining C8 levels in the blood.
Whereas past similar medical projects may have relied on a questionnaire to determine a patient's medical history and thereby been subject to human error, Deitzler says this process will provide infallible findings.
Among other things, it may help an individual who is in the beginning stages of a serious illness to be diagnosed before he or she would have been normally.
"That may not mean a lot to 69,000 of the people, but it means a lot to the one," Deitzler said.
The results of the C8 Health Project will be viewed and applied by a panel of three epidemiologists -- Tony Fletcher, David Savitz and Kyle Steemland -- who were approved by the court to conduct a study on the effects C8 may have on a human. The chemical has already been linked to health problems in animals.
The science panel's project is required by the terms of the settlement, but the C8 Health Project was not.
"The health project is a gratuitous one," Deitzler said. "The science panel that was created would study with or without the health project. They are funded to do whatever's necessary to complete their study. That's an open-ended part of the settlement."
If C8 is linked to any diseases by the science panel, DuPont will provide up to $235 million in medical monitoring and will not contest general causation between C8 and any such disease in any personal injury claims that class members pursue.
The project may also aid James Peterson, a co-worker of Deitzler's, with a federal class action suit taking place in Iowa. Peterson is a member of the plaintiffs steering committee in the Multi-District Litigation case that stems from the alleged release of C8 from Teflon-coated pans produced by DuPont.
Other injuries, not C8-related, may also "pop up" during the study, Deitzler said, and the information will be shared around the world.
"(The C8 Health Project) is so important because the information will not be held privately, that scientists all over the world will be able to study all of the benefits and information it will have not just to class members, but to humankind in general," Deitzler said.
"It wasn't something that DuPont planned for us to do. "They provided us with the funds."