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 Post subject: Ringwood: Curtain opens on Ford suit
PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2006 7:52 pm 
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Curtain opens on Ford suit
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Friday, January 20, 2006


The marquee lawyers who sued the Ford Motor Co. on behalf of 700 Ringwood residents promised a David vs. Goliath fight against the auto giant Thursday, in a case that could become the most expensive environmental lawsuit in New Jersey.

Standing in front of a toxic site on Peters Mine Road, this A-team of lawyers accused Ford of fraud and negligence and vowed to make an American icon compensate Native Americans for living amid industrial waste for decades.

"The land our clients live on is more toxic than ever," said attorney Vicki Gilliam. "Ford breached that corporate trust and broke that responsibility to the people around them."

The news conference was the opening salvo in what's expected to be years of litigation, which began Wednesday with the filing of a 13-count complaint that lawyers hailed as a "landmark." They refused to discuss it in detail, however.

A dapperly dressed former law partner of Johnnie Cochran quoted the Bible and pledged equal justice for "these original Americans."

A glamorous Southern lawyer misted up and said: "A child's playground should not be a toxic dumpsite. That's what this case is about."

Environmental legal experts are closely monitoring the litigation because of the number of plaintiffs involved, the scope of the evidence and the potential for unprecedented awards.

"It's one of the largest, if not the largest, suits we've seen filed in the environmental field," said West Orange attorney Michael Gordon, who has won sizable settlements for clients who felt they were harmed by pollution in Toms River and in the Pompton Plains section of Pequannock.

The litigation against Ford and other companies filed in Superior Court in Paterson does not specify a monetary amount for damages, and lawyers refused to discuss the issue Thursday.

However, in a separate filing putting Ringwood on notice that it may be sued, the attorneys said they would seek $3 million per resident, a total that could exceed $2 billion.

Gilliam confirmed Thursday that the Upper Ringwood residents plan to file suit against the municipality but must wait six months after filing the notice of claim.

Ford and its agents are accused of dumping tons of paint sludge and other industrial waste in an enclave that has been home to the state-recognized Ramapough Mountain tribe for more than 200 years.

The suit accuses the companies of concealing the dangers the toxic waste posed to residents of Upper Ringwood and deliberately conducting only a partial cleanup. Ford and other companies profited, too, the suit alleges, from "virtually free disposal and storage of toxic waste for decades."

Ford spokesman Jon Holt declined to respond to the litigation, saying: "The lawsuit is addressing historical issues in the past," he said. "We're addressing what's there now."

Contractors hired by Ford have removed 13,000 tons of tainted soil and paint sludge since January 2005, Holt said. Ford consultants have surveyed most of the site, he said, and are preparing work plans for areas where paint sludge has been found.

While the news conference was under way, several large dump trucks were being filled with paint sludge and contaminated soil in what is the fifth government-supervised cleanup at the site. The current work area is adjacent to Park Brook, where residents used to swim before the dumping polluted the water.

It will be those images - a pristine bounty spoiled by corporate America; a trusting minority community taken advantage of - that Jock M. Smith, a senior partner in The Cochran Firm, will rely on in representing the residents.

"These original Americans needed to be treated like other Americans under the law," he said, recalling how his father, the first African-American attorney in Manhattan, was assassinated in his law office.

Smith has a reputation for picking sympathetic victims and plaintiffs with deep pockets, a formula that netted clients in Alabama awards in excess of $1 billion in their claims against fraudulent insurers.

The attorneys, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s law partner Kevin Madonna, refused to detail their legal strategy with reporters and prohibited the dozen or so clients in attendance to grant interviews.

But Anthony Van Dunk, 43, the chief of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, stepped up the cluster of microphones to speak on behalf of his people.

"For generations, there hasn't been justice - in education, housing, employment, anything. Maybe this will finally give them the justice they've deserved for so long," he said. "And that's what this is all about - justice."

Staff Writers Barbara Williams and Jan Barry contributed to this article.


Reproduced with permission of North Jersey Media Group.

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