Sidebar Rob Bilott ’90
A partner at a corporate law firm receives a tip that a major chemical company might be polluting a town’s water supply and begins to investigate. He uncovers boxes—and decades—worth of incriminating evidence that more than 70,000 people have been drinking water laced with potentially poisonous levels of a man-made chemical. Despite years of professional and political pressure, he resolves to bring justice to the victims, no matter what.
It sounds like the plot of a new Erin Brockovich-meets-A Civil Action Hollywood blockbuster. But, it’s actually the real life story of Rob Bilott ’90, a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, in Cincinnati, whose class-action lawsuit against chemical company DuPont was the subject of a lengthy and explosive New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” last month.
The article, by Nathaniel Rich, details Bilott’s quest to prove that not only did DuPont dump a toxic chemical, PFOA (also known as C8), which was used in the company’s Teflon products, into a landfill near its factory in West Virginia, but scientists at the company were aware of the potential harm PFOA could cause anyone exposed to it, from links to cancer to thyroid disease to birth defects. Bilott currently serves as co-lead counsel of the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee in ongoing multidistrict litigation involving claims of thousands of people who have been exposed to “C8.”
The New York Times was not the first publication to take notice of Bilott’s work on the case. An August 2015 Huffington Post article noted that thanks in part to Bilott, DuPont finally phased out C8. The Times article, however, set forth a wave of follow-up stories on Bilott, including an op-ed in the Times urging reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act. The story also blew up on social media channels, with some readers calling Bilott an American hero.
“I’ve been getting a lot of emails and phone calls in support of all of this work and it’s been pretty overwhelming, frankly,” Bilott said in a recent interview after the Times story ran. “It’s been a unique experience—that’s for sure.”
The Times article describes Bilott as “given to understatement.” When asked if he anticipated this type of reaction to Rich’s story, Bilott said, “No. Not at all. I had no idea that it would generate the kind of interest that it did.”
And besides, his focus has always been on his clients who, he said, “have basically been poisoned for many, many years, and were told, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ They deserve to have the truth. The scientific truth.”
“That’s one of the reasons we set up our settlement the way we did, back in 2005,” he continued. “We wanted a valid scientific answer that everyone could have faith in, that wasn’t being generated by one side or the other, of what this chemical can do to you after drinking it in your water for years. It confirmed what we had suspected. And, it confirmed what we were seeing in DuPont’s own documents—that C8 is a carcinogen that should not be in the water. It was in the water at levels far too high and the people who were drinking it were at serious health risk for doing so. We wanted to make sure these people got the information they deserved and were able to pursue their rights for having been poisoned this many years.”
Bilott, an Ohio native, developed his passion for environmental law while a student at Moritz. He took a course in the subject matter and never looked back. “Environmental law seemed to have a more real-world impact,” he said. “That was the field that fit for me.”
After graduating from law school, he joined the Environmental Practice Group of the Litigation Department in the Cincinnati Office of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, where he represents corporate, governmental, and individual clients in wide range of environmental, regulatory and toxic tort matters in federal and state courts and administrative entities. In other words, he typically represents companies similar to DuPont, making his class-action lawsuit against the chemical giant all the more striking. But he took the case on, as he told the Times, because it was the right thing to do.
“You’ve got to simply do what you know needs to be done for your client,” he explained. “That’s the primary objective. And when you do that, things work out. When you take on representation of someone, do it to the best of your abilities. That may require some risk, but that’s what you are required to do.”