Reopening a controversial environmental case, a federal court yesterday ordered new hearings to determine if Beatrice Foods Co. and its lawyers "knowingly or intentionally" failed to disclose evidence in a trial.
The 54-page decision, handed down by a three-member panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, did not order a new trial in the case at this point. Eight Woburn families had filed suit against Beatrice, W.R. Grace & Co. and others. But the ruling said that the judge handling the case erred in his procedure for determining whether evidence was withheld. The appeals court set out precise guidelines for the new hearing that lawyers yesterday said were precedent-setting.
The decision sprang from a 1982 case in which the Woburn families alleged Beatrice and others were responsible for discharging toxic pollutants that contaminated the city's wells and blamed the polluted water for six cancer deaths.
The families appealed a 1986 jury verdict that absolved Beatrice of liability. W.R. Grace & Co. paid a reported $8 million in 1986 to settle the suit against it.
Lawyers representing the Woburn families applauded the decision yesterday, saying it made clear that Beatrice violated legal rules in the trial. "The families are looking forward to the opportunity to go back before the court to determine the full extent of abuse and determine the appropriate remedy," said one lawyer, Jan Richard Schlichtmann.
But attorney Jerome P. Facher, who represents Beatrice, noted that yesterday's decision upheld a 1986 jury decision that absolved the company. He added that the company did not intentionally withhold evidence, but rather believed it was unimportant to the case.
All sides were surprised at the detailed instructions for how the court should conduct the hearing.
"This is the first time the 1st Circuit has given attorneys guideposts for standards by which they can monitor their own conduct and that of the fellow attorneys," said one lawyer, Arthur Licata, part of the legal team representing the families.
Yesterday's decision addresses two appeals. In the first, the Woburn families challenged a post-trial ruling made by US District Judge Walter Jay Skinner, who presided at the trial, that dismissed as insignificant a report published after the trial.
The report, authored by Yankee Environmental Engineering and Research Services Inc., was a hydrogeologic investigation of the property owned by Beatrice and the former site of a tannery. The report said investigation found some toxic elements similar to the contaminants that the Woburn families alleged had polluted the ground water.
In their decision yesterday, US Court of Appeals Judges Hugh H. Bownes, Juan R. Torruella and Bruce Selya said they did not "venture to say whether the report was sufficiently valuable" to have affected the trial.
But, they wrote, "the circumstances surrounding its nondisclosure are of great concern" and described its withholding as "misconduct."
In the second appeal, the families challenged the jury verdict clearing Beatrice. Their request for a new trial was rejected.
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