Lawyers from Houston’s Hicks Thomas & Lilienstern won a defense
verdict July 20 in a multimillion-dollar environmental contamination suit
filed by a dry-cleaning company.
Hicks Thomas litigation partners Taylor M. Hicks Jr., John B. Thomas and
O. Clayton Lilienstern and associates Brian M. Keller and Wade H. Whilden
Jr. represented defendant R.R. Street & Co. of Naperville, Ill. Serving
as co-counsel were shareholders Joe E. Luce and Alfred C. Koenig and associate
Steven Hudgins of Houston’s Hudgins, Hudgins & Warrick. Serving
as national counsel for R.R. Street were partners John R. Doyle and David
F. Wentzel of McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago.
Pilgrim Enterprises Inc. of Houston and Pilgrim Convenience Inc. of San
Antonio filed the suit in Harris County in 1995, alleging R.R. Street
sold defective drycleaning equipment that used the chemical cleaning solvent
perchloroethylene (PERC). The plaintiffs contended that R.R. Street failed
to warn them about the dangers of PERC, which they say discharged and
leaked, causing contamination of soil and ground water at 16 dry-cleaning
plants owned or leased by the Pilgrim entities in Houston and San Antonio.
The suit claimed R.R. Street provided inspection and maintenance of the
equipment at the Pilgrim plants to ensure that none of the chemical leaked
Pilgrim Enterprises owned or leased the plants in Houston, and Pilgrim
Convenience owned or leased the San Antonio plants, although the same
family had an ownership interest in both corporate entities. Pilgrim Enterprises
Inc. was represented by lead counsel Michael A. Pohl of The Law Offices
of Michael A. Pohl in Houston and Mark A. Waite, an associate at the firm.
Rafael Berk, a Houston solo, served as co-counsel. Representing Pilgrim
Convenience and serving as cocounsel were partners Jean C. Frizzell and
Jeffrey C. Alexander and associate Andrew L. Pickens of Houston’s
Gibbs & Bruns.
When the Pilgrim company owners were in negotiations to sell their businesses
in 1994, they discovered the contamination during an environmental assessment
of the plants, Pohl says. The plaintiffs contended the contamination had
been going on for decades, since the plants opened in the 1960s and 1970s.
The old owners sold the business in 1996.
Jack Turk, a Houston businessman who owned three additional dry-cleaning
plant sites that were contaminated, intervened in the suit against R.R.
Street. Pilgrim Enterprises operated the three sites.
Turk was represented by David Mestemaker of Houston’s Mestemaker
& Straub and Dennis Reich of Houston’s Reich & Binstock.
Turk and the Pilgrim plaintiffs were seeking about $12 million in damages
as reimbursement for cleanup costs. Thomas argued at trial that Pilgrim
improperly stored and managed the chemical.
After about two months of testimony, a 215th District Court jury deliberated
about a day and a half before finding R.R. Street was not negligent and
did not commit fraud. The jury also found there was neither a design defect
in the equipment nor a defect in marketing of the equipment.
Three other similar suits against R.R. Street are pending in Texas —
two in Houston and one in Austin — and one is pending in California,
The Pilgrim plaintiffs settled with at least five defendants named in the
suit. All of those defendants settled before trial, with the exception
of Hoyt Corp., a drycleaning equipment manufacturer based in Westport,
Mass., that reached a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs and
Turk about a month after testimony began. About four to five other defendants
were dismissed, Waite says.
Representing Hoyt were partner Richard S. Baron, as lead counsel, and senior
associate Anthony J. Nellis of Kitch, Drutchas, Wagner & Kenney in
Detroit. Timothy Hogan, a partner in Houston’s Beirne, Maynard &
Parsons, served as local counsel for Hoyt.
Mestemaker says he will file a motion for new trial and a motion for judgment
notwithstanding the verdict with 215th District Judge Dwight Jefferson,
who has not yet signed a final judgment. Pohl and Frizzell on July 28
filed a motion asking Jefferson to enter judgment on a separate claim
of strict liability. That issue by law must be decided by a judge, rather
than a jury, Pohl says. A hearing on the motion is scheduled Aug. 17.