Mass tort firms see gold in PFAS compounds
Officials in Miami-Dade County recently selected Levin Papantonio, a prominent Florida mass tort firm, to represent them in a lawsuit alleging that the manufacturers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemical compounds polluted groundwater in the county. Levin Papantonio won the bidding war over eight other high-profile law firms after it reduced its contingency fee, sending a clear signal of just how much the firm thinks this contract is worth. As I have previously noted, PFAS litigation may be the ultimate mass tort payday, because virtually every American may qualify as a plaintiff.
PFAS compounds, often called “forever chemicals” because they are soluble in water and breakdown slowly, have been safely used for decades in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting, waterproof clothing, firefighting foam, and dozens of other household products. As a result, trace amounts of PFAS are commonly found in the blood of nearly every American—which makes for a tempting mass tort target and a compelling reason for a law firm to reduce its contingency fee to secure access to what it must believe could be hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
At the heart of the PFAS debate is whether and at what levels of exposure PFAS compounds are potentially harmful to humans, and on this, the scientific jury is decidedly out. Two PFAS compounds—PFOA and PFOS—have been phased out and replaced by other compounds as a result of extensive research on their toxicity. The Center supports such actions when based on fact-based science, as this results in well-informed decisions that protect consumers while allowing the safe use of chemicals and compounds that enhance our quality of life and safety.
Problems arise, however, when mass tort firms attempt to have all PFAS compounds treated identically and claim a causal link between minimal exposure levels to them—which almost every American has experienced—and a variety of diseases.
Additional confusion is created because different governments have developed wildly inconsistent levels of “safe” or “low risk” dose measurements for exposure to PFAS. These variations are primarily due to the disagreement among scientists on the “critical effect” level of PFAS, which defines the first effect judged to be harmful at the lowest dose, and the disagreement among governments and scientists about the length of time it takes for the compounds to clear from our bodies.
The Center believes that an independent, objective, and time-tested scientific analysis resulting in a clear understanding of the potential harmful effects of PFAS on humans is necessary, along with more uniformity in government standards for exposure to the hundreds of different PFAS compounds now in use around the world. Until we reach more definitive conclusions about PFAS, the mass tort machine will continue to aggressively pursue litigation that relies on fragmented and conflicting scientific “facts” in order to force companies to pay billions in settlements or risk having their reputation, integrity, and shareholder value shredded in the public square.