After a seven-year battle, Griffin Industries, Inc., and the rendering industry, claimed victory in a round of litigation that only recently came to a final conclusion.
In 2003, the U.S. government filed suit against Griffin Industries and five of its employees alleging violations of the Clean Water Act at its Dublin, GA, rendering facility. The criminal investigation was triggered by an affidavit from a disgruntled employee who claimed the company discharged pollutants into a nearby creek in violation of its permit and added bottled water to ground water samples to keep them within acceptable limits. Although the former employee later admitted to providing false testimony in the affidavit due to coercion from an attorney retained by the City of East Dublin and Laurens County, both in Georgia, the government ultimately sought five superseding indictments against the company and its five employees.
Despite a magnitude of evidence to the contrary and numerous unsuccessful negotiations with government officials, Griffin and its five employees chose to go to trial and clear the company and individuals of any accused wrongdoing. On the eve of the trial in November 2004, the government offered the company and its employees a settlement that avoided trial and exonerated all defendants. In the settlement, Griffin Industries agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor discharge of fuel oil that occurred on a Sunday, a day that the Dublin facility was closed, and all claims against the five Griffin employees were dismissed with prejudice (meaning the plaintiff is barred from bringing an action on the same claim).
At no time has the company’s Dublin, GA, facility ever been cited for a notice of violation regarding its operating permits. According to Christopher Griffin, director of legal affairs for Griffin Industries, “the federal government successfully prosecutes 98.5 percent of all cases it files and the fact that Griffin achieved a result only obtained in 1.5 percent of all federal cases is certainly a victory for Griffin and the rendering industry.”
On the heels of the government’s action, a class action lawsuit containing about 2,000 residents was filed in April 2003 and alleged civil claims that mirrored the federal complaint, along with claims of trespass and nuisance related to odor. The class action lawsuit was filed by the same attorney that procured the false affidavit used in the government’s action, and this attorney was later disqualified for a conflict of interest. The class action was stayed pending resolution of the federal case. After dismissal of the federal case, counsel for the class action amended the complaint and dropped all allegations of water pollution, pursuing only nuisance and trespass claims. The class was certified based in large part on the false affidavit from a former employee.
For the next five years there was very little activity on the case because of the lengthy appeals process regarding class certification. Discovery resumed in late 2009, and based on information Griffin Industries obtained during this time, the company filed a motion for decertification and dismissal of the class action. Shortly thereafter, the parties reached a settlement whereby Griffin admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to donate $30,000 to the local fire department and spend $100,000 per year for three years on odor control chemicals and related equipment – something it was already doing. All parties agreed that the settlement is a good result that provides an avenue for all parties involved to put the matter behind them and move forward in a positive direction.
One of the measures Griffin will take is to install a synthetic cover over its anaerobic lagoon. In 2007, Griffin’s East Dublin facility was recognized by the Georgia Association of Water Professionals for its outstanding operation of its wastewater treatment facility. The addition of a synthetic cover to its anaerobic lagoon will further enhance the facility’s wastewater treatment process while continuing Griffin’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
Christopher Griffin said that this is one of the most defense-oriented settlements one will see in a class action context.
“We ended seven years of litigation by essentially agreeing to do what we have always done, continually investing in our plants and process,” Griffin commented. “While it was a long fought battle, Griffin felt it was important to remain aggressive and defend the reputation and integrity of the company, its employees, and the industry.”
December 2010 RENDER | back