Corporate defense lawyer's suit against DuPont exposed decades of pollution and redefined his career
Rob Bilott had a good job at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati. As an associate in the firm’s environmental division, he defended large chemical companies from litigation. In 1998, he was about to make partner and was supporting a stay-at-home wife and an infant son.
Then a neighbor of his late grandmother called from Parkersburg, West Virginia, with a complaint about illegal dumping by DuPont Chemical Co. After reviewing the photos, videos and documents Wilbur Tennant brought him, Bilott took the case, even though it meant potentially alienating his firm’s existing clients, according to a profile in New York Times Magazine.
Bilott settled the case in Tennant’s favor—but along the way, he discovered that DuPont had been knowingly dumping carcinogenic chemicals into a local waterway. In 2001, he sent the evidence he’d compiled to the Environmental Protection Agency. Five years later, DuPont agreed to what was then the largest civil penalty in EPA history, $16.5 million.
Rather than return to his corporate practice, Bilott took on a class-action lawsuit for West Virginia and Ohio water customers. That settlement funded long-term medical testing in the affected communities. Scientists later issued a statement calling on the world to reduce use of the implicated group of chemicals, though the EPA has not made regulations on those chemicals. According to the article, the six companies that produced those chemicals are phasing out production.
Bilott is still at Taft Stettinius, despite concerns about his ability to bring in clients and money. And he’s still trying cases related to the chemical dump in Parkersburg. The article says there are more than 3,500 cases to try.