Monday, April 28, 2003

Only in America!
Gary Delsohn in the Sacramento Bee reports State is suing ex-dry cleaners:
CHICO -- Vart Vartabedian is 93 years old, and he's being sued for $1.4 million by the California attorney general's office.

His wife, Jean, who is in her late 80s, isn't named in the suit, but she's worried that her two sons, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren could be stuck with the bills after she and her husband are gone.

And the Vartabedians aren't alone.

Their longtime friends Bob and Inez Heidinger -- he's 87, has Alzheimer's disease and is blind in one eye; she's 83, has bone marrow cancer and needs shoulder surgery -- also are being sued.

So are Betty Rollag, a Chico widow, and about a half-dozen other retired and elderly residents of this college town who the state says are responsible for poisoning much of the city's water.
Also named in the suit are the city of Chico, whose sewers in the contaminated area are cracked and leaking, and Paul Tullius, a 57-year-old retired Air Force pilot, and his wife, Vicki, who own a warehouse that last housed a dry cleaner in 1972 -- 16 years before they bought the building without knowing its entire history.

"This is the most draconian law you could ever imagine," said Tullius, who's worried his children might somehow wind up with the responsibility to pay some of the costs. "I fought in two wars. I thought I've done everything right and now -- can you imagine getting a bill like this for something we had absolutely nothing to do with? Can you imagine what that does to your life? I'm sort of thinking this isn't the country I thought it was."
You got that right, Paul. More on the old folks in the article, but let's just consider Mr. Tullius:
Tullius bought a warehouse in downtown Chico in 1988 to store old cars he used to collect. He said he had no idea it had housed a dry cleaner from 1964 until 1972, and even if he had, he wouldn't have thought much of it.

But because his name is on the title to the building, which he's leasing to a Chico homeless shelter, he's been told that he and his wife are liable, too.

Tullius has filed a few court motions with the help of a lawyer friend, but he said he refuses to spend the estimated $75,000 to $100,000 he figures it would cost to hire an attorney for the long, drawn-out litigation.

As for the man who sold him the building 15 years ago, Tullius said: "He's sort of become a friend, but I'm going to have to sue him, and I suppose he'll have to sue the person he bought it from."
And more on that theme:
The lawsuits have done something else the defendants find difficult to live with: They've pitted longtime friends against one another.

Bob Heidinger and Vartabedian used to be close. When the men were single, Vartabedian said, they "ran around together."

But the Superfund statute has a civil law provision called "joint and several" liability.

It allows an injured plaintiff, in this case the state, to recover damages from one or more of a combination of defendants -- even if one or more defendants can't pay and if it's impossible to prove exactly how much each defendant contributed to the pollution.

So, to protect themselves against the possibility of being stuck with all the costs, defendants in such suits typically sue one another.

"I'm not unsympathetic to anyone in this suit," said attorney Johnson. "It's just a symptom of our industrial age that we're not competently dealing with. It's just one of those things you find yourself in. You do the best you can and end up feeling bad for everybody."
That's not quite how I would describe the feeling it gives me.