No one was ever found liable in the children’s deaths.
January 22, 2014
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Art Newell called regularly to update her. Though the seed money had run out, he remained optimistic. When the families first brought the tort action for negligence against Feldman, he explained, the developer’s attorneys fought it, arguing that Feldman had exercised all due care to such a degree that there could be no question of fact or material law. In plain English it meant that Feldman claimed to know nothing about the problem when he bought the land from Illinois Edison. It was only when they were digging the septic tank at Meadow City that he discovered the coal tar underground. Once it was found, Feldman immediately contacted Prairie State to clean it up, like the good corporate citizen he was. The accident and subsequent contamination thus were the responsibilities of Illinois Edison and Prairie State.
“Isn’t he just trying to pass the buck?” Maggie asked.
“Even if Feldman wasn’t to blame, the accident happened on his watch, so to speak. It was his land. Environmental law says he’s still liable But that’s not the issue. I just found something that will blow this case wide open!”
What?” Maggie asked breathlessly.
Newell said he’d found a source who claimed Feldman did know the extent of contamination at Meadow City, but “convinced” regulators that the problem had been solved. Feldman couldn’t afford a long-term clean up as the law required– it could have taken thirty years to do. He wouldn’t have been able to build on the land; his plans for Meadow City would have been scuttled. He had to limit the clean-up operation—get it over with as soon as possible.
So, his source alleged, money—and lots of it—found its way into the pockets of state environmental officials, who then produced documents that gave the site a clean bill of health, even though it wasn’t and wouldn’t be for years.
Newell’s witness, who worked for the state, had overheard a clandestine meeting between a Feldman attorney and a state official during which specific amounts of “persuasion” were discussed, and was willing to testify about it. This would blow the case sky-high, Newell predicted. It was criminal now. Feldman would go to jail.
Maggie smiled for the first time in years.
On the eve of the trial Newell called with bad news. “You might want to sit down.”
Maggie wound the phone cord around her fingers.
“Our witness was in a bad accident last night. She’s dead.”
“No!” She gasped.
“I’m sorry, Maggie.”
Hunched over the table, she covered her face with her hand. “What are we going to do?”
Newell swallowed. “I’m not sure. But it gets worse.”
She pulled on the phone cord, watching the black rubber spirals straighten and grow taut.
“She was our only shot. With the Feldman camp and the State denying everything, no one will come forward to testify for us. I tried for a continuance so we could try to find somebody else. At least put our ducks in a row. But the judge won’t grant it.” And then he dropped the bomb. “He granted a motion to dismiss SGF without prejudice. Feldman’s out of the case.”
Maggie collapsed in a chair. “I don’t get it. How can that happen? We have her deposition. Isn’t that as good as testimony?”
“The judge won’t admit it. He says it’s hearsay.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not in a position to accuse anyone of anything at this point.” Newell cleared his throat. “But there is one piece of good news.”
“What’s that?” Maggie said, her voice laced with doubt.
Newell explained that Illinois Edison, the defendant with the deepest pockets, had nonetheless filed a cross-claim against Feldman and Prairie State to keep them in the case, mostly to share costs. The judge hadn’t released Feldman from that suit, so, indirectly, he was still liable.
But Maggie was unconvinced. Legal bickering among the defendants was nothing compared to the death of a child. She and the other parents had been relegated to bothersome petty whiners to be weeded out and dismissed.
Her misgivings proved to be prescient. By the time the case finally went to trial, Feldman had settled with Illinois Edison, and was out of the case completely. Frannie Yablonski had moved to the West Coast, Greg and Maggie had split up, and Joan Stewart elected not to testify. Maggie weathered a rough cross on the stand, similar to her deposition. And while Newell did the best he could, the jury’s verdict was pre-ordained.
No one was found liable for the children’s deaths. Not the utility that created the mess, or the company that cleaned it up, or the realtor who had developed it. What happened at Meadow City was tragic, the jury concurred, but it was a sad sequence of events that couldn’t be blamed on any individual or institution. Everyone had tried to do the right thing; everyone had behaved lawfully. Justice had been served.
Nearly eight years had passed since Maggie moved into Meadow City. TJ would have been six.
Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.