Largest Jury Award

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. must pay $14.5 million to Park County for dumping toxic waste in the county landfill during the late 1970s and 1980s, a state jury has concluded.

The award is the largest ever from a Montana jury.

"This will allow Park County to rid themselves of this mess,'' said Billings attorney Clifford Edwards, who represented Park County in the two-year lawsuit. ''You know, if you poop in somebody else's front yard, you have to clean it up.''

After eight days of testimony, the jury deliberated nine hours before returning its verdict on a 8-4 vote late Wednesday. Unlike criminal cases, civil cases don't require a unanimous decision. The jury also voted not to levy punitive damages against railroad.

The railroad had asked that the case be moved from Park County, and the trial was before a jury in Missoula.

Park County sued BNSF almost two years ago, maintaining that the company dumped toxic sludge in the county's landfill and should have to pay for the cleanup. Specifically, the county alleged that BNSF dumped perchloroethylene-a solvent that can cause cancer and birth defects and damage the liver and the central nervous system-sometimes in barrels marked "nonhazardous.''

Edwards said the dumping began in 1977, after the railroad promised state officials it would stop dumping toxic chemicals on its own land near Livingston and the Yellowstone River. The dumping continued into the 1980s.

Over the years, the county contended, 14 tons of the pollutants were dumped at the landfill by BNSF, some of which seeped into groundwater and nearby streams.

State environmental officials have previously ordered Park County to clean up the landfill, but the county has not had the money to sufficiently complete the job and filed its lawsuit. The landfill has been monitored by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality since perchloroethylene was discovered in the groundwater in 1989.

Edwards said BNSF steadfastly denied that it had dumped the sludge. Only during its closing arguments this week, Edwards said, did the railroad concede that it perhaps had accidentally dumped some of the toxic solvent at the landfill. BNSF, however, disputed the environmental impact and the amounts that the county claims were left at the landfill.

During closing arguments, a lawyer for the railroad suggested that the jury award Park County $2 million for the cleanup, saying that the company wanted to be a good neighbor.

Although the jury awarded more than seven times that amount, Edwards said he hopes the company meant what it said.

"We'll see how good of a corporate neighbor they are,'' Edwards said, "or if we're going onto never ending appeals. I want to see if they'll pay up so we can start cleaning up this mess.''

A spokesman for the BNSF in Forth Worth, Texas, told the Associated Press in a one-sentence statement: ''We're disappointed with the verdict, and are considering all of our options, including appeal.'' He declined to comment further.

Edwards didn't want to speak badly about the largest jury verdict in state history, but he fired a warning to the railroad. Appeal, he said, and Park County will consider seeking a new trial as well.

He said that Park County had asked the jury for more than $30 million in damages and planned to ask for substantially more than that if the panel had decided to award punitive damages.

An expert for the county had testified that the cleanup would cost at least $10.7 million, but could easily run three times that amount.

Edwards noted that when the panel was polled after their verdict Wednesday night, one of the jurors responded, "It should have been a lot more.''

Park County was also represented by Edwards' partners, Mike Tolstedt and Elizabeth Halverson, both Billings lawyers.

It's been an especially good year for the firm. Just last May, Edwards represented a young woman who won a $1.5 million judgment from Payless Shoes. The woman, an employee of Payless in Billings Heights, was working alone when she was attacked and raped at the business. The award is one of the largest ever awarded by a Yellowstone County jury.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.