“Dark Waters” is another ethics movie, and a very good one. Like all ethics movies involving real events, it is also educational—disturbingly so.
The film, which was released late last year, dramatizes the story of attorney Robert Bilott and his nearly two decades of battling DuPont over its deliberate (okay, “negligent”) poisoning of citizens and the entire nation with the chemicals used to manufacture Teflon. Yes, “the entire nation”: that’s not hyperbole. It is believed that the unregulated and toxic chemical called PFOA is in the system of everyone living in the U.S. as a result of DuPont’s conduct.
The movie has not been a prominent success, perhaps because is treads along the well-worn path of earlier movies about similar corporate scandals and class action law suits, like Julia Roberts’ “Erin Brockovich” ( Pacific Gas and Electric Company ) and John Travolta’s “A Civil Action” (Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace and Company). The star (and producer) of “Dark Water,” Mark Ruffalo, isn’t quite in the same star category as Travolta and Roberts, but an A-list cast was assembled to back him, including Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, and Bill Pullman.
“Dark Waters,” horrifying to say, is mostly accurate. It was also one of those films where I was left wondering, “How did I miss this? Was it me, or was the story under-reported? If it was the latter, why was it under-reported?” The film was based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” as well as that lawyer’s memoir. “Exposure,” giving Bilott’s perspective on his 20-year legal battle against DuPont. In the end, the company paid over $600 million in a settlement, which was far less than they should have paid; I’m sure the company regards this as a victory. (Its stock went up after the announcement.)
- In the 1960s, DuPont gave its own staff cigarettes secretly laced with Teflon to make them human test rats regarding the potential side effects of the PFOA-produced nonstick substance.
Internal documents uncovered by Bilott revealed, “Nine out of ten people in the highest-dosed group were noticeably ill for an average of nine hours with flu-like symptoms that included chills, backache, fever, and coughing.” Yet DuPont continued to dump the stuff in the water of the Ohio and West Virginia “Chemical Valley” regions, without warning residents.
- DuPont bought 600 acres in the region and used it as a dumping ground for sludge that the company knew was toxic after conducting tests for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Nearly a decade before the company denied culpability when it was sued, its internal documents expressed concern that livestock in local farms would be harmed.
The symptoms shown in the movie, including tumors, diseased organs, and blackened teeth matched those shown in a videotape made by the original class action plaintiff, who sent to Bilott, triggering the legal battle
- DuPont coordinated the sending of a deceptive letter from the local water district to local residents that the unregulated chemical PFOA was present in their drinking water at ‘‘low concentrations.” Though delivered on the public utility’s letterhead, the letter was first reviewed and maybe authored by DuPont lawyers.It was designed to start the clock on the statute of limitations, because it made the community aware of the conditions. The letter alerted the public to the toxic threat by stating that it was not a threat.
Note to self: In the next legal ethics seminar, if there is one, ask the lawyers what they would do if their client or corporate employer asked them to compose a letter like that.
The movie also recounts an example of a law firm doing the right thing. Bilott’s firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, was almost exclusively a corporate defense firm with some large clients in the same industry as DuPont. Although the firm shows Bilott facing some resistance from his partners, in the end the firm backed his class action as a matter of ethics and the mission of the profession. Bilott was lucky. Not all large firms would have the same attitude.
Episodes like this, and there have been too many of them, are why Socialists like Bernie Sanders are able to attract as much support as they do (Ruffalo is a vocal Bernie Bro), and defenders of the capitalist system have an obligation to be aware of them. Corporate executives who do things like this—I suspect that the murderous fictional company portrayed in George Clooney’s “Michael Clayton” was modeled on Dupont—don’t merely have malfunctioning ethics alarms, they have none at all. We should not underestimate the threat they pose to our nation, our safety, and our society.