TISHOMINGO — A six-person jury has awarded families in southeastern Oklahoma more than $73 million in damages for a sewage discharge that contaminated their land and several creeks in 2006.
The verdict, reached Tuesday in Johnston County, included $13.2 million in actual damages and $60 million in punitive damages. The two defendant companies, Oklahoma-based Mehlburger Brawley Inc. and Arkansas-based B3 Inc., failed to show up for the trial.
Johnston County Associate District Judge Charles J. Migliorino has yet to finalize the awards and could lower the amounts. Migliorino declined to comment on the case.
“The jury voiced a clear message that water is one of the most valuable natural resources and that must be respected,” Trae Gray, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys in the case, said in a statement.
More than 10 million gallons of sewage and wastewater was illegally pumped into three creeks in October 2006 during an upgrade of sewage lagoons for the town of Mill Creek. B3, an excavation and construction company, and NRS Consulting Engineers, a unit of Mehlburger Brawley Inc., were the contractors on the project. State officials issued the town a notice of violation that pumping by B3 exceeded the amount of wastewater that could be discharged into Three Mile Creek, a tributary of Mill Creek.
The town's public works authority reached a settlement with affected landowners in 2009.
Gray said some of landowners had to move off their property because their sole source of household water was Mill Creek. It was too costly for them to be serviced by a nearby rural water supply, he said.
“The families still do not feel comfortable going into the creek or swimming in the creek,” Gray said.
Ava Converse said her father bought property on Mill Creek in 1961 and the farm holds significant memories for her family.
“The jury's decision sent a clear message that what B3 and MBI (Mehlburger Brawley Inc.) did was disrespectful as well as wrong,” Converse said. “The verdict gives us some peace as it relates to our dad's legacy.”
Gray, of Coalgate-based LandownerFirm.com, and Jason Aamodt, of the Environmental Law Center in Tulsa, led a team of attorneys in the case, which was filed in 2008.
The case was in settlement talks as recently as early September, but Mehlburger Brawley Inc. fired its attorneys at a settlement conference in nearby Carter County. The company's president and chief executive officer, Roger C. Ford, could not be reached for comment.
Ford's former attorneys at the Richardson Law Firm in Tulsa did not return calls for comment.
Ford sold the assets of the engineering firm in January to McAlester-based Infrastructure Solutions Group LLC and California-based Sequoia Asset Management Group. Ford kept liability for the pending lawsuit as a condition of the sale, said representatives of Infrastructure Solutions Group, which still does business under the Mehlburger Brawley name.
Gray said it appears Mehlburger Brawley Inc. is trying to get out of its responsibility for the sewage spill by selling its assets to the new company. Gray said he first heard about the sale at the settlement conference in early September.
“We believe the responsible party will be determined by a court of the appropriate jurisdiction,” Gray said. “We will employ every avenue to collect our judgment in this case.”
B3, an excavation and construction company in Beebe, Ark., filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January 2012. The bankruptcy became final in April 2012 after a trustee found the company had no assets. A woman answering the phone at a number for B3's owners declined to comment.
The jury's decision sent a clear message that what B3 and MBI (Mehlburger Brawley Inc.) did was disrespectful as well as wrong. The verdict gives us some peace as it relates to our dad's legacy.”
She said her father bought property on Mill Creek in 1961 and the farm holds significant memories for her family.