Every day — for three months — they sat in judgment on wooden chairs, listening as dozens upon dozens of witnesses testified about the lead that poisoned children and the corporations behind the smelter that dominates the small town of Herculaneum.
Six years of motions, depositions and countless hours of preparation would come down to what a dozen St. Louis city residents would take away from all that testimony.
Ultimately, the jurors in Alexander v. Fluor, otherwise known as the Doe Run trial, would deliver the third-highest verdict in state history: $358.5 million, ranking only behind one against a mass murderer and one against a pharmacist who diluted people’s cancer drugs.
But few people outside the jury room knew what led them to their verdict.
On July 29, the day of the jury’s final verdict — $320 million in punitive damages on top of $38.5 million in compensatory damages — the jurors made an informal pact: They would dodge news reporters and skedaddle back to their lives.
Two months later, only three of the jurors agreed to be interviewed about their experiences on the longest trial in St. Louis history.
Juror Tracy E. Davis summed it up for those who still wouldn’t talk. She said she’d lived with the trial for three months — and that was long enough.
One juror called the experience “exhausting.”
“You had to sit there for eight hours and listen to different doctors talking about different things or pieces of evidence you don’t know anything about,” she said. “Some days I just wanted to sit there and cover my ears,” particularly with lawyers “lawyers hollering back and forth” or getting loud with witnesses.
That juror insisted on anonymity for this article; she said she doesn’t want lawyers in other lead smelter cases to come nosing around. After the decision that she and her fellow jurors made, there may well be more such suits in the years to come.
‘A little surprised’
It’s a safe bet that few if any of the jurors selected for the trial wanted to serve for three months. The would-be jurors were told during voir dire to expect an eight-week trial.
Some presented reasons they thought would nix them from jury service. Clarence “C.D.” Blue, 40, for instance, knows where Herculaneum and the smelter are located, knows people who live in the town and is married to a nurse who makes home visits to patients there.
Greg Hart, 50, has a slipped disc in his back, his wife, Glenda, said. Hart, who works in building maintenance, was on call and unavailable the September evening the reporter knocked on his door. So Glenda Hart talked about her husband’s jury service.
“He tried to talk his way out of it,” she said. “At first he hated that he got chosen, but then he enjoyed it.”
John Reno, 51, said he was “a little surprised” he was selected for such a high-profile case particularly because he works for this newspaper, which would report on the trial. Not long ago, his wife was excused from jury duty because of where he works. “But at the same time, there were other potential jurors … who told me, ‘They’ve got you nailed,’” he said.
Reno is the production manager at Missouri Lawyers Media and was, for three months, Juror No. 1123.
The juror who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Juror No. 585, said she too thought she would be dismissed.
“I said, ‘Where kids are involved, I tend to get emotional.’”
The plaintiffs in this case are 16 people who spent at least parts of their childhood living near the Doe Run smelter in Herculaneum, 26 miles south of St. Louis.
Lead emissions between 1986 and 1994 caused the plaintiffs — all children when the lawsuit was filed in 2005— to shed IQ points and to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and other problems, the lawsuit alleged.
The defendants were the smelter’s formers owners: Fluor Corp., A.T. Massey Coal Co. and Doe Run Investment Holding Corp., the three entities that made up the Doe Run Company Partnership.
Eight alternates were selected to serve alongside the 12 jurors for the complex trial, but during the last month that number dwindled to two. The final juror to be excused had said all along he had a vacation planned, and the judge let him go with roughly four weeks left of trial, Reno said.
The rest of the jurors had a different attitude. As Blue put it, “After the first month, I thought I’m too far in it to try to pull out now.”
Jury service was a sacrifice for Blue, who said his employer paid him for just two weeks of the trial. Blue, aka Juror No. 880, works in the maintenance department for the Humane Society of Missouri on Macklind Avenue. He also said he produces music and deejays, and he was able to earn some money doing that on weeknights and weekends. With a month, maybe a month and a half, left in the trial, Blue started working Saturdays at the Humane Society so he could keep his health insurance.
Reno’s employer paid him during his entire service in exchange for his $1,260 juror check. Juror No. 585’s employer paid her for the time she was serving, and, like Reno, she turned over her juror check.
Then, a few weeks after the trial ended, she lost her job.
“I believe my jury service was part of the [reason I was let go],” she said.
‘Just buy it out’
The jurors interviewed all stand by their verdicts, saying the plaintiffs proved the defendants knew lead emissions from the Herculaneum smelter were harming people in the community but chose not to do anything about it.
“Nobody needed to be convinced” of the defendants’ liability, Juror No. 585 said.
Particularly significant to one juror was evidence that the defendants bought property around the lead smelter and rented out the houses — but they did not permit children to live in those houses.
“We felt that they knew the lead was out there, that they tried to cover it up, that they could have done something about it before a lot of those kids were ever born,” she said.
For Blue, the decision was easy. The evidence “clearly shows that harm has been brought onto the community, and I think from this point on, there will be other lawsuits to follow until they are shut down,” Blue said.
“Because no matter how much soil they replace or how many vacuum cleaners they bring into these people’s homes, well, guess what, they’ve still got kids living there. So just buy it out.”
The verdict was, however, a difficult decision for Reno. “Throughout the whole trial I was going either way because I could see both sides,” he said.
The final instructions directed the jury to enter a verdict for the plaintiffs if they found the defendants caused or contributed to the plaintiffs’ harm.
“The ‘contributed to’ made a difference in the end as far as I was concerned,” he said.
Also, documents from Doe Run Company Partnership provided compelling evidence of wrongdoing.
“The town could be bought out for about $9 million, and they were approving just six houses a year to be purchased,” Reno said.
In a 1989 letter, consultant Paul Allen told Leslie McCraw, then Fluor’s vice chairman, that the partnership could afford to buy out the entire town of Herculaneum and return the land to its pristine state.
But Allen recommended against the action because it would put the partnership at risk of class action lawsuits.
The partnership also chose to make the Herculaneum operation its primary smelter, even though the Buick smelter in Iron County was surrounded by undeveloped land while the Herculaneum smelter was in a populated area. Handwritten on a memo about the choice: “This decision is cash-driven.”
Reno said, “The documents stated it [Buick] would not produce as much lead as the one in Herculaneum, so it seemed to be an issue of profit over the safety of the neighbors.”
The documents also made a strong impression on Blue. He said it’s not enough to make the defendants pay with money.
“I think some people need to go to jail.”
‘Nail in the coffin’
In some instances, witnesses for the defense actually helped the plaintiffs’ case, Blue and Reno each recalled.
Blue said the “nail in the coffin” was when the defense showed a video deposition of the mother of plaintiffs Brian and Tiffany Bolden, over the objections of the Bolden family.
The effects of lead poisoning on the mother were clear, Blue said, particularly in the way she shook and nodded her head instead of answering yes or no.
“It was just depressing,” Blue said. “I’ve never seen nothing like it.”
Doe Run’s former president, Jeffrey L. Zelms, didn’t do the defense any favors, either.
“He was a smart aleck,” Reno said.
“For example, when [plaintiffs’ lawyer Gerson] Smoger said he had just one or two more questions to ask and handed him a piece of evidence, [Zelms] said, ‘Come over here; I’d love to kiss you.’ When he said he had one question left, Zelms [applauded].” At this point in the interview, Reno clapped his hands.
“One juror said that swayed him,” he said.
The jurors interviewed had nothing but good things to say about Judge Dennis Schaumann and about the way they were treated by the court.
“I thought the judge was very patient,” Reno said. “There were a few times when he’d have to crack a joke, somehow, [and say], ‘We all know this is serious, but it doesn’t have to be dull.’”
Blue called Schaumann “awesome.”
“He came in when he was sick. He hung in there with us, and we hung in there with him.”
Blue laughed as he recalled how, despite the ban on cellphones in the courtroom, the judge kept checking his because his daughter was expecting a baby.
“She was due with my second grandchild,” Schaumann said.
Blue-eyed, brown-haired Landon James Wolfard arrived at noon June 28.
The jury deliberation room came outfitted with a refrigerator. When a juror asked for a microwave, the court provided that, too, Reno said. In addition, the lawyers agreed to buy bottled water for the jurors as well as the occasional bagels, fruit and coffee from St. Louis Bread Co., he said. And the court bought lunch for the jurors once a week, he said.
“Everything we requested, they gave to us,” Juror No. 585 said.
In turn, the judge heaped praise on the jurors.
“I thanked them as much as I could during the trial,” Schaumann said.
Every juror was on time, every day, and they paid attention to what was going on. The jurors were “very, very easy to deal with,” personable people with good senses of humor, Schaumann said.
Even with moments of levity, both inside and outside the courtroom, sitting through the three-month trial took its toll on the jurors.
To help them stay awake, about four or five jurors regularly downed 5-hour Energy drinks, Juror No. 585 said. Others, including her, “chewed a lot of gum and ate a lot of candy.”
Blue said the trial was stressful, particularly because it made him aware of how prevalent lead used to be in paint and in gasoline, among other things.
“The whole point of lead poisoning, it’s so urban,” he said. “That hit home base right there.”
Susey Blue said it was difficult for her husband to keep everything bottled up. He took seriously the admonition not to talk about the case.
“There were times he came home and went straight to bed,” she said. “‘Today was a bad day.’ That’s all he would say.” It was particularly difficult for a man not used to dealing with controversy, she said.
On the other hand, Hart would come home with funny stories about something that happened in the courtroom, although he steered clear of talking about the case itself, Glenda Hart said.
She said her husband gained 30 pounds sitting in the courtroom day after day. Hart’s job is a physical one, and now that he’s back to it, he’s losing the weight again, she said.
Susey Blue had to get used to not being able to call her husband, something she said she usually does “two or three times a day.” During the trial, one of the Blues’ dogs, a Chihuahua named Noodles, became ill.
“He’d text me on his breaks: How’s Noodles?” Susey Blue said, wiping her eyes as she recalled coming home to find the dog dead on the floor.
On July 28, the jury awarded a total of $38.5 million in compensatory damages and the next day topped that off with $320 million in punitive damages.
While deciding liability was easy for Blue, he said calculating damages was “mind-boggling.”
During the first closing arguments, lawyer Mark Bronson, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, asked the jury to calculate compensatory damages based on a range of lost earning capacity, plus $1 million for each IQ point lost.
The jury didn’t bite. As Blue put it, “I knew I wasn’t going to do that, because those are some serious numbers.”
The jurors calculated compensatory damages for each plaintiff separately. The amounts were based on several factors, including IQ points the plaintiffs lost, how close the plaintiffs lived to the smelter, how long they lived there, what their highest blood lead levels were and their lost earning capacities, the jurors said.
The deliberation began with the question: “Does anyone not think there was knowledge of the possible damage?” Reno said.
“There was not a lot of debate back and forth. Everyone agreed they needed to award damages.”
When all 12 jurors signed the compensatory verdict, they also agreed the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages, so a separate hearing was held solely on that issue.
During that round of closing arguments, defense lawyer Jack Quinn told jurors they were free to write in “zero” for the amount of punitive damages. The defendants, Quinn said, heard the message the jury sent with its $38.5 million compensatory damage award.
Not only did the statement not have the desired effect, Reno said, but also it might have prompted many of the jurors to opt for a higher amount.
“I can’t say I necessarily wanted them to pay more,” Juror No. 585 said, “but I know I wanted them to pay something because of that statement.”
Reno said the jury decided to do what the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked and make the defendants “feel it.”
The jury decided to make it hurt: It awarded $112 million more than the $208 million the plaintiffs’ lawyers had sought.
After Schaumann read the verdicts, he met privately with the jurors to thank them for their sacrifice and to tell them he would recommend they get more time before being called again.
Then the 12 former strangers left the Civil Courts Building for the last time late in the afternoon of July 29.
“It was a relief, that’s for sure,” Juror No. 585 said. “I felt that we accomplished what we sat there all that time for.”
“It felt good to be done,” Reno agreed.
“Oddly, no one took the time to say goodbye. We were all trying to get the heck out of there and avoid the reporters.”