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Georgia-Pacific Corp. has agreed to a $22 million settlement of a class action stemming from an explosion in a resin plant in Columbus, Ohio. The agreement, which addresses claims triggered by a 1997 blast at the plant — but encompasses grievances stemming back to a 1984 plant explosion — will settle claims from a class of property owners and residents of the South Side community surrounding the plant. The agreement also creates a public health program focused on preventive health strategies, as well as an environmental liaison, said lead defense counsel Scott North of Columbus’ Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. “The motive for settling is to rebuild the relationship with the community,” North said. “The settlement demonstrates the commitment the plant has to building a relationship with the community, to interact with the community on issues of concern to that community.” D. David Altman, whose Cincinnati firm, D. David Altman Co., works solely as plaintiffs’ counsel in environmental tort cases, said that community volunteers and his own willingness to bring in outside counsel were the keys to offsetting the defense’s much greater legal resources. SMART PLAINTIFFS “I knew this would be a difficult case because GP had not only a lot of lawyers but a large number of law firms,” Altman said. “One of the reasons I took the case is because the people who came to me were smart. They educated themselves on the issues and they were able to help.” The class in the case encompasses people who lived around the plant at the time of a spectacular explosion the night of Sept. 10, 1997. However, Altman said the case from the perspective of the class members is a continuation of litigation filed following a 1984 explosion. “The group lived in fear the plant would explode again, which it did,” he said. “Aside from that, there were ongoing releases.” The community group had demonstrated tenacity but equally important to the case, Altman said, was the willingness of activists to acquire the skills needed to effectively canvas hundreds of homes to gather data essential for forming a recognizable class of plaintiffs. “We needed a lot of information to assess this case and that was information from well over 1,000 people, and probably 800 households,” he said. Bringing in skilled litigators, even though it meant a smaller portion of whatever fee was ever recovered, was crucial to winning a settlement, Altman said. The team he assembled included Amy J. Leonard of his firm; James B. Helmer and Paul B. Martins of Cincinnati’s Helmer, Lugbill, Martins & Morgan; and Richard W. Pace, a solo practitioner in Columbus. “I wanted to be certain that this time the community did not get outgunned in court, so we brought in very good litigators,” he said. “I think a lot of lawyers are worried about divvying up the fee but if you are too focused on that you are making a huge mistake. The first issue is whether the client is well represented, because otherwise there might not be any fee to divvy up.” The settlement is subject to a fairness hearing, scheduled for December, but neither side expressed any interest in resuming negotiations. It took many months to reach the agreement. Booth v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., No. 98CV05-3535 (Franklin Co., Ohio, Ct. C.P.).

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