MUSCATINE — With final approval given to the Grain Processing Corporation class-action settlement, those who plan to file a claim to receive benefits have until March 19 to mail in forms, but should file sooner rather than later.
During a hearing Tuesday Judge John Telleen heard the joint motion to approve the settlement at the Muscatine School District Administration Center. With more than 30 class members present including plaintiffs, Telleen said he found "wholeheartedly" the settlement is fair and reasonable to class members. He then granted final approval.
The case began in 2012, when a class action was brought against GPC by eight residents who claimed smoke, odor and haze from the plant caused a nuisance. The class was certified in October 2015 when around 200 people filed claims. Class certification was affirmed in May 2017 by the Iowa Supreme Court and the class prepared for trial set for July 2018. Telleen ordered the parties into mediation in April 2018, and a settlement was reached in October 2018.
During the course of the case, attorneys for the class argued plant emissions were negligent and odor was a nuisance that lead to the loss of enjoyment for property owners. The agreement had GPC paying $45 million into a fund to cover an estimated 14,000 class member claims and another $6.5 million covering pollution controls at the plant. Depending on where class members live, each person in a household may receive $2,000 to $16,000. The settlement releases GPC from liability from all known and unknown claims based on air emissions and odor on or before the settlement was approved and for the next five years.
Tuesday's hearing was difficult to hear. Microphones were not available and the acoustics of the former church muffled voices.
Both sides read statements of support for approval. An attorney for the class, Sarah Siskind, said the case had been "fought hard." Siskind, Scott Entin, James Larew and Claire Diallo represented the class. GPC was represented by Joshua Frank, John Kuhl and Kyle Fry.
Siskind said the proposed settlement was groundbreaking because counsel did not know of another settlement like this "in duration of coverage, complexity or value."
Frank said GPC supports the settlement as fair and it provides closure to the class. It also ensures the company can "continue operating successfully in Muscatine."
Wanda Hayes, said she returned to Muscatine in 2004 to care for her father and lived in the class area near the plant. She has asthma and her daughter was treated for recurring bronchitis at University of Iowa hospitals, accruing large medical bills.
"They finally said it's because of where you live," she said. "We keep getting sick and getting worse."
Alice Hughes said she thought what the class achieved was a "monumental breakthrough." Although the health issues she feels were caused by the plant's emissions were not part of the case, "we made a dent in the pollution."
"I think more people will be willing to come back and move into Muscatine," Hayes said because of the pollution controls. "And that will make the community a lot better."
Delores Foster said it was a fair settlement and she's glad the case is wrapping up.
"I hope it does some good for Muscatine and things will start getting better especially down in Southend," she said.
Suzette Foster lived near the plant for nearly 20 years prior to the class action and attended the hearing.
"I think it's fantastic that they went through with it," she said of the settlement, "and I think it will be a bonus for Muscatine. We didn't do it for our personal gain but for the gain of Muscatine as a whole."
Kelcey Brackett, plaintiff, said he looked forward to those possible improvements and was excited by the outcome of the settlement.
"I think, as the judge stated during the hearing, this was probably the most fair turn out of the case. Both sides would've taken a great risk going to trial. And I think what this does is secure a way for GPC and the community to work together."
He looks forward to the use of additional pollution controls at the plant and said he likes that the company accepted those requirements as part of the settlement. GPC also made $83 million in upgrades to the plant during the class action, which Brackett also acknowledged.
"I know I've seen reduction of odors in the area," he said, "and I want to see that continue.
Making a claim
To qualify to make a claim for payment a person must have lived at a property in the class area, 1.5-mile radius of the plant, as a renter, owner or dependent of a renter or owner anytime between April 24, 2007 and Sept. 1, 2017. Each class member, adults and children, must fill out a form to receive a share of the settlement. A notice was sent to class members Nov. 19 following preliminary approval.
People employed by GPC with titles of manager, director, vice president, senior vice president or president do not qualify, nor do persons who opted out of the class action in 2017.
Full settlement documents are available at GPCclassaction.com or by calling 1-888-952-9083. For local assistance with the claim form or other questions, class counsel members are available by appointment at Larew Law Office, 210 Cedar St. by calling 563-263-2120.
Class members are encouraged to file claims as soon as possible, according to Telleen and class counsel. Forms may be time-intensive and claimants may have questions before the March 19 final postmark date to file.
"I would hate to see people not take advantage of that," Telleen said.
Attorneys associated with the class will be available by appointment at Larew Law Office in Muscatine.Those services will be provided at no cost.
"We are in Muscatine three days a week," said Siskind. "And we plan to expand."
If money is leftover after payouts, Frank said the first $2 million would go into a community fund to make improvements to the neighborhood around the plant.
WATCH OUT FOR SCAMS
With the settlement approved, outside groups offering settlement recovery services may start to appear. The Federal Trade Commission offers this advice:
- Don't give money or your bank or credit card account number to anyone who calls offering to recover money, merchandise, or prizes you never received if the caller says you have to pay a fee in advance.
- Before you use any company to recover either money or a prize, ask what specific services the company provides and the cost of each service. Check out the company with local government law enforcement and consumer agencies; ask whether other people have registered complaints about the business. You also can enter the company name into an online search engine to look for complaints.
Siskind said class counsel "can't speak to the quality, cost or expertise of service" of companies offering recovery services, but counsel is "accountable to the court."