In a Tuscan-style villa in an office park near the Charleston airport, seven West Virginia plaintiffs’ lawyers gathered on Jan. 13 for a council of war. A chemical spill that four days earlier had cut off tap water to 300,000 West Virginians was floating its way westward down the Ohio River. Local authorities were saying Freedom Industries, the chemical distributor that was the source of the 7,500 gallons of leaked coal processing chemicals, may not have acted swiftly enough to warn about the seepage from a ruptured storage tank. And the federal prosecutor in town sounded dead serious about a criminal investigation.
No surprise, then, that the atmosphere in the elegant conference room of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler, while businesslike, had an undertone of bellicose joy. “We’re looking at punitive damages, piercing the corporate veil at Freedom Industries, and holding the water company and the chemical manufacturer liable, too,” said James Peterson, the strategy session’s host. Dressed in a black tracksuit and tan baseball cap, he acknowledged he hadn’t showered in five days. Then he smiled and said, “Neither have a lot of other people around here, and they’re pissed.”