In a trial that ended on May 17, 2018, SL Environmental Law Group represented the City of Pomona against defendant SQM North America Corp. (SQM), a mining company which for decades sold nitrate fertilizer to California citrus farmers that contained an impurity called perchlorate. The State of California sets a maximum level for how much perchlorate should be in drinking water due to the chemical’s toxicity, including its impact on the health of pregnant women and infants. In order to protect its citizens and meet State safe-drinking water standards, Pomona built a state-of-the-art facility to remove SQM’s perchlorate from its water. When SQM refused to accept responsibility for the harm that its fertilizer caused to the City and failed to reimburse the City for the costs of building and operating the perchlorate removal facility, Pomona engaged SL Environmental Law Group to sue SQM to recover these costs.
At trial the jury found that SQM had sold fertilizer that contained perchlorate and that the perchlorate from SQM’s fertilizer had polluted Pomona’s drinking water and caused Pomona to spend money on building and operating a perchlorate removal anion exchange treatment plant. However, the judge issued an instruction to the jury that, in order to find SQM legally liable for the harm caused by its product, the risks of perchlorate contaminating the water and causing adverse health effects had to be known at the time that the fertilizer was in use, which was primarily in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The jury found that the risks of perchlorate were not known at the time of the fertilizer’s use and that this relieved SQM of financial responsibility for the harm caused by its product.
SL Environmental believes, one, the court’s instruction to the jury was faulty and contrary to California law and, two, this faulty instruction led the jury to erroneously relieve SQM of its liability for contaminating Pomona’s water. SL Environmental Law Group has successfully appealed past rulings by the court in this case to the 9th Circuit and, in consultation with the City of Pomona, is considering options with regard to the faulty jury instruction.