DuPont, Teflon and the potential impact of a class action lawsuit

In the 1930’s DuPont, a U.S. firm, invented and began to market a substance called Teflon.  Teflon is used today primarily as a non-stick coating for pots, pans and other cookware, though Teflon also has applications as a coating for textile based products such as clothes, apparel, carpeting and furniture.  When manufacturing Teflon a chemical called perfluorooctanioc acid, or PFOA is used, though Teflon and PFOA are not the same – PFOA is a chemical, Teflon is a name brand.  This chemical, which some scientist have said is a likely human carcinogen, is the reason lawsuits have been filed.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency addresses PFOA, or “C8” as it is sometimes called, giving specific attention to its potential harmful effects.  The EPA points out that they are unaware of any information that the general public is being exposed to PFOA through the routine use of non-stick cookware.  The website also says that the EPA knows of no reason for consumers to stop using non-stick cookware.  The EPA points out that Teflon is not PFOA, but that PFOA is used in the manufacture of Teflon.

DuPont also denies the claims that Teflon or the PFOA contained in the Teflon causes cancer, saying that their product is safe.  However, in 2004, DuPont did agree to an out of court settlement in a class action suit brought on behalf of approximately 50,000 residents living near a DuPont plant in West Virginia.  The basis of this class action was that DuPont had polluted the water in the Ohio River south of their plant with PFOA and that this had resulted in birth defects and other hazards, though DuPont admitted no liability in settling this suit.  Given the resolution of this class action, it is not surprising that attention has now been focused on Teflon and the PFOA contained within it.

The main result has been that a number of lawsuits have been filed across the US alleging that DuPont failed to properly warn of the potential hazards of the exposure to PFOA in cookware.  On May 12, 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court located in Des Moines, Iowa.

The basis of the suit is the allegation that DuPont knew of the harm exposure to PFOA could cause and that the PFOA in Teflon could become toxic when the cookware reached certain temperatures that are easily attainable on a household stovetop.  The lawsuit also alleges that in addition to having this knowledge, DuPont repeatedly lied to the public and government in saying that Teflon was safe.   The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit are asking the Court to:

1. establish a fund to provide for the independent study of the harmful effects of Teflon

2. immediately cease the manufacture and distribution of Teflon

3. to replace or compensate the owner of any Teflon coated product, and

4. to provide warning labels indicating the potential harmful effects of Teflon.

However, despite the numerous allegations raised in the suit and the relief that has been requested, the lawsuit does not allege that anyone has become ill or that the PFOA in the Teflon has ever made anyone sick, the crux of the lawsuit is that the potential for injury may exist.

The lawsuit also alleges that DuPont has concealed documentation that addresses the harmful effects of the PFOA in Teflon.  While the suit does not specify a specific dollar amount, it has been estimated that the suit, if successful, could cost DuPont in excess of $5 billion.

DuPont has long contended and continues to maintain the position that Teflon has a proven 40 year track record and that it is safe and non-harmful.  DuPont will be filing an answer responding to the allegations contained in the complaint.  As the suit has been filed as a class action, the Plaintiff’s will be arguing that it should be certified as a class [a class action cannot be maintained without judicial certification] thereby giving the attorneys in the case the ability to argue on behalf of potentially millions of consumers and to also argue and present evidence that they may have been harmed through their use of Teflon and Teflon coated products.  DuPont has made it clear that they will fight certification as a class action for these lawsuits.

On DuPont’s website there is a long overview of Teflon and PFOA.   On the website, DuPont has provided a basis for what will likely be the basis of any defense in the case in that they say that independent studies have repeatedly shown that no detectable levels of PFOA could be found in two independent studies.  The website goes on to point out that when the United States Food and Drug Administration conducted testing that, under non-standard and abusive conditions, only minute levels of PFOA could be found.  On their web page, DuPont even points out that the American Heart Association recommends cooking with non-stick cookware.

A quick search on Google for near any variation of “DuPont,” “lawsuit,” and “Teflon” provides more than 60,000 results.  Many of the results are current news articles focused on not only the current lawsuit that has been filed seeking federal class action status for numerous plaintiffs, but also the prior DuPont lawsuit where the class settled over PFOA allegedly found in the Ohio River.  As well, you will find a number of web sites put up by attorneys seeking to recruit members of the class and also a number of websites focused on DuPont’s alleged suppression of documentation showing that PFOA is harmful to the general public and that toxic exposure could happen as a result of exposure to the non-stick Teflon coated cookware.  This case continues to gain interest as a result of its potential long reaching impact.

This case is quite interesting for a number of reasons.  Clearly, DuPont, having paid many of millions of dollars to settle a suit related to PFOA exposure takes this matter quite seriously and recognizes the potential exposure by way of this lawsuit.  The scope and potential impact of this case is perhaps one of the most far reaching of any class action ever filed in the United States.  There have been class actions in the past that have had a far reaching impact based upon the members of the class; however, this Teflon case has the potential to reach even further – clearly into the majority of the homes in the United States.

Teflon, in its 40 year history has become a mainstay of cooking so much to the point that societies’ heart friendly approach to cooking and dieting frequently starts with an item of non-stick cookware.  As a result of this homes in which there are an absence of non-stick cookware will be at a minimum.  It is a result of this that legal experts speculate that if the lawsuit is successful and DuPont is required to replace or compensate the owners of Teflon coated non-stick cookware that the financial exposure could be upwards of $5 billion dollars.  This suit will likely be ongoing for some time; however, there will be numerous opportunities for the case end.  The first of these events will soon be occurring as the initial hearings in the matter will be focused on determine whether the plaintiffs will be granted class action status for their claims.

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