TVA contractor can’t ditch $3 bln suit by coal-ash cleanup workers – 6th Circ

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REUTERS/Chris Keane

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  • Complaint says Jacobs Engineering caused illnesses by failing to follow its own safety plan
  • Contractor’s immunity claim fails latest SCOTUS standard, panel holds

(Reuters) - The Tennessee Valley Authority’s prime cleanup contractor for a massive 2008 coal-ash spill cannot escape lawsuits by dozens of workers who say the company denied them personal protective equipment and otherwise ignored its own TVA-approved safety protocols, a federal appeals court held.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday that Jacobs Engineering Group’s status as a TVA contractor did not make it immune from the workers’ consolidated lawsuits, which seek $50 million in compensatory damages and another $3 billion in punitive damages.

“Jacobs concedes that it is immune from suit only if the TVA is immune,” the 6th Circuit said. However, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the scope of the TVA’s immunity in another case in 2019; and under the new test, “we conclude that the TVA would not have been immune.”

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Plaintiffs’ lawyer Billy Ringger III of the Milberg firm hailed the decision, saying it “finally dispenses with the notion that Jacobs could be legally immune from liability despite the abhorrent treatment of the workers who helped clean up the nation’s largest coal ash spill.”

Dallas-based Jacobs and its lead attorneys, Theane Evangelis and Theodore Boutrous Jr of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company has fought the case vigorously since the first action was filed in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2013.

The plaintiffs — 60 workers and their family members, according the the 6th Circuit — say they developed lung and skin cancers, COPD, coronary artery disease and other serious or fatal illnesses from cleaning up the coal-ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant, about 40 miles outside of Knoxville.

They say Jacobs promised the TVA it would take specific steps to minimize workers’ exposure to coal ash and airborne fly ash — byproducts of burning coal, which contain heavy metals and other toxins — but that the company violated the contract by failing to monitor fly ash levels, denying their requests for respirators, dust masks and PPE, and in other ways.

In 2018, a federal jury resolved the threshold questions of Jacobs’ duties and breach in the plaintiffs’ favor, clearing the way for individualized trials on causation and damages.

However, the individualized trials have been delayed by post-trial motions, Jacobs’ appeal to the 6th Circuit on the immunity issue, and a question about one of Jacobs’ defenses under state law, which the Tennessee Supreme Court plans to consider on June 1.

The case decided Wednesday is Greg Adkisson et al v. Jacobs Engineering Group Inc, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-5801.

For Jacobs Engineering: Theane Evangelis and Theodore Boutrous Jr. of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

For Adkisson et al: Mark Silvey, Will Ladnier and Louis (Billy) Ringger III of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman

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