U.S. Water News Online
PORTLAND, Maine -- Three small water bottlers are seeking
compensation from a Seattle law firm they say caused the breakup of a
$39 million settlement with the owners of Poland Spring in order to
pursue a more lucrative class-action lawsuit.
The U.S. District Court trial pits the small bottlers, including a
New York-based firm co-owned by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., against Hagens
Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, a firm that specializes in class-action
Maine companies Glenwood Farms Inc. and Carrabassett Spring Water,
along with Kennedy's Tear of the Clouds LLC, say Hagens Berman was
assisting them with their case against Poland Spring but defected at
the last minute and filed class-action claims in five states, causing
Poland Spring's parent company to withdraw its offer.
The companies say the breakup of the deal negotiated for them in
2003 by Jan Schlichtmann, the flamboyant lawyer portrayed by John
Travolta in the 1999 film "A Civil Action," cost them millions of
The case is rooted in a claim that Poland Spring was mislabeled
because it is pumped from wells, not a spring, and could contain
The settlement reportedly would have required Poland Spring's
owner, Nestle Waters North America, to refund $2.5 million to
customers, donate $2.5 million to charity and agree to testing and
review of its water quality by independent inspectors.
In his opening statement on behalf of the small companies,
attorney William Robitzek said his clients were abandoned by Hagens
Berman, which had a duty to protect their interests but was driven by
greed to violate legal ethics.
"Their interest was in the big bucks," Robitzek said.
Defense attorney Peter DeTroy said the law firm could not accept
the deal because it came at the expense of the consumers Hagens
Berman represented as a class.
"(Hagens Berman) knew this was an effort to sabotage the class,"
DeTroy said of the settlement. "It was not the right thing to do and
and they had no obligation to approve" the deal.
Schlictmann's battle on behalf of families in Woburn, Mass., whose
children's leukemia was linked to industrial pollution, was the
subject of the book and film "A Civil Action." He took on the Poland
Spring case after being told in 2002 that its water does not come
from a naturally occurring spring, but is pumped from wells and
trucked to bottling plants.
In the opinion of some hydrologists, Schlichtmann found, the water
is pumped at such volume that it could include potentially
contaminated surface water drawn from ponds and other bodies of
Schlichtmann could not handle such a complex case on his own,
DeTroy said, so he brought in Hagens Berman.
Robitzek said the plaintiffs hoped to avoid a lawsuit and
negotiate a deal that would get Poland Spring to correct its problems
without a public disclosure that would damage the entire Maine
bottled water industry.
DeTroy disagreed, saying suing Nestle was always a possibility,
especially after the company offered only $20 million in response to
a demand for $150 million.
When Hagens Berman filed lawsuits, Nestle withdrew its offer.
The class-action cases were resolved in November 2003, when an
Illinois judge voted to accept a $12.1 million settlement with
consumers. Most people received coupons for Poland Spring water, but
the lead plaintiff received $12,000. His lawyer, who was not
associated with Hagens Berman, was awarded $810,000 in fees.
Poland Spring did not have to change its label, said company
spokeswoman Jane Lazgin. "We're spring water, we live up to every
definition of spring water," she said. "These are allegations and
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