Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds District Court’s Ruling Dismissing Personal Injury Claims in Water Contamination Case Due to Lack of Physical Injuries

150850_waste_water_treatment.jpgWhen it comes to personal injury law, most people think of car accidents, medical malpractice, or a slip-and-fall accident. Negligence, however, can take many forms, and people can even be injured by the very water that they drink, which is why you should contact a West Virginia personal injury lawyer if you think you have been the victim of any type of negligence. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently decided one such case that involved the contamination of a public water supply in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and we wanted to share its outcome with our readers.

In William R. Rhodes v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Company, the Plaintiffs are residents of Parkersburg in Wood County, West Virginia. They are customers of the Parkersburg City Water Department, which supplies them with the water in their homes. For a number of years, DuPont operated a manufacturing plant in Wood County that discharged perfluourooctanoic acid (PFOA) into the surrounding area, and as a result, PFOA made its way into the water pumped by the Water Department into the plaintiffs’ residential homes. Because of this contamination, many residents of Parkersburg accumulated PFOA in their blood and decided to file a lawsuit.

Plaintiffs filed a class-action suit for negligence, battery, trespass and private nuisance against DuPont, and sought monetary damages and an injunction to require long-term diagnostic testing and medical monitoring of residents affected by the contaminated water — in order to determine if there are any latent diseases caused by the presence of PFOA in the water. In response, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss all of the claims, which was granted by the district court in part and denied in part. The district court dismissed all of the common law tort claims because the Plaintiffs did not currently suffer from any illness caused by their exposure to PFOA, but the court did not dismiss the individual claims for medical monitoring. Plaintiffs appealed the dismissals.

On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that, while they did not suffer from any current illnesses due to PFOA, they were at a higher risk for developing “liver disease, cholesterol abnormalities, and certain cancers” as a result of their exposure to the chemical. The Court of Appeals did not find Plaintiffs’ arguments compelling, however. The Court held that the increased risk of disease does not, in fact, meet the injury requirement needed to sustain a claim for negligence under West Virginia Law. Furthermore, the presence of PFOA in the public water supply or in a person’s blood does not, by itself establish the requisite harm. Instead, plaintiffs must be able to provide the court with evidence that the presence of such a chemical has had a detrimental effect on plaintiffs’ health, or that such harm is reasonably certain to occur. The Court dismissed the battery claims under similar reasoning, stating that the West Virginia Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs must be able to demonstrate “actual physical impairment” to maintain a claim for battery. In so ruling, the Appellate Court upheld the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ tort claims.