Tonight at 9 pm ET, HBO will broadcast a documentary titled, “Mann v. Ford,” about a class action lawsuit brought by the Ramapough Mountain Indians, who have lived for hundreds of years in northern New Jersey, 40 miles from midtown Manhattan. In the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company bought land from the Indians and began dumping toxic waste in woods and abandoned mines near their homes.
In the 1980s, the Ramapoughʼs land was added to the EPAʼs list of federally monitored Superfund sites, and then removed from the list after Ford and the EPA supposedly cleaned it up. But 80 percent of the toxic waste had been left behind, and the Indians suffered from the deadly impacts of the sludge, including cancers, skin rashes and other symptoms of toxic poisoning. The Indians eventually hired attorney Vicki Gilliam, who with another attorney filed the class action lawsuit, seeking millions of dollars from Ford as compensation. Ford denied all responsibility for the illnesses devastating the community and claimed its cleanup complied with all EPA rules.
You can read all of the details of the years of illnesses on the special website created by the Bergen Record newspaper in New Jersey, which first reported the story.
I arranged for Vicki Gilliam to be interviewed by Terry Lowry, host of the syndicated What’s Up radio program, which is broadcast on 12 Christian radio stations in 10 states and co-sponsored by the American Association for Justice (my client). You can download today’s podcast of the interview in two parts – Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In the interview, Vicki discussed how Ford Motor Company knew of the deadly nature of the sludge dumped onto the Indians’ land; the horrible medical impacts of the sludge; how the EPA didn’t force Ford to dispose of all of the waste.
Eventually the Indians settled the case with Ford, and the terms of the settlement are not public. The lawsuit resulted in the EPA’s returning the site to the Superfund list, the first time a cleared site was returned to the list – a warning to the 70+ million Americans living near a Superfund-listed site.
One of the lessons emerging from this story is that Americans need to have the option of filing a class action or “mass tort” lawsuit when numerous people are harmed by the same dangerous and grossly negligent action. Too often, tortious action affecting thousands of people goes unchallenged by federal regulators, and the victims need to have the option of filing their lawsuits together. The “tort reform” movement is seeking to sharply limit the right of Americans to combine their claims in a class action; the Mann v. Ford case shows us why we can’t let that happen.