Another insurance company has asked a court to declare it has no obligation to cover the village of Crestwood against the mountain of claims it faces from residents who believe they were poisoned for decades by drinking water from a contaminated well the village was secretly blending with the Lake Michigan water residents believed was flowing from their taps.
On Tuesday, June 23, Twin City Fire Insurance Company, an affiliate of The Hartford companies, filed suit in federal court in Chicago, asking a judge to back its contention the policy held by the village excludes from coverage the kinds of claims and legal actions besetting the village since 2009.
While the details of the individual lawsuits brought against the village in the days following disclosure of the water contamination may vary, Twin City said it believes the policy it issued to Crestwood is clear in determining it has no duty to defend the municipality against the village residents’ claims.
“While the underlying claims are based on various theories of liability, the (residents) allege that since 1985 or 1986, the village has been aware that its tap water supply had become contaminated by dangerous chemicals, but the village fraudulently, knowingly and intentionally concealed these facts from government officials and its water consumers,” Twin City’s complaint states.
The five-count complaint centers on the village’s legal troubles since 2009, when The Chicago Tribune, acting on a tip from village residents, first broke the story of the contamination in the village’s municipal water supply.
According to published reports, the village’s Well No. 1 failed water quality tests in the mid-1980s. In the years since, that well had supposedly been placed out of service, as the village switched to Lake Michigan as its municipal water source. Purportedly, the well would only be drawn upon in cases of emergency.
However, in 2009, the Tribune ran its story, indicating village officials were continuing to pump from the well, with the well at times contributing as much as 30 percent of the village’s water.
Subsequent testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed the well’s water contained toxic levels of contaminants, including dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, which were believed to have originated from a now-shuttered dry cleaners shop in the village. The U.S. EPA shut down the well at that time.
The chemicals are considered dangerous by public health officials. The U.S. EPA, for instance, considers there to be no safe allowable dosage for vinyl chloride.
Large numbers of residents later brought class actions and other suits against the village, alleging liability for a host of severe health problems, including various cancers, tumors and deaths, they and their families have experienced in the past two decades.
According to published reports, the village settled the first such class action in 2010 for $2.8 million, including $500,000 to be paid to village residents.
Village employees who oversaw Crestwood’s water supply were later indicted, and either pleaded guilty or were convicted, on federal charges related to their roles in covering up the blending of the water.
In the years since, other insurers who had issued policies to the village have also secured judgments affirming they have no obligation to defend or indemnify Crestwood or its officials, including the former water officials or former Mayor Chester Stranczek, who served as the village’s mayor from 1969-2007.
Just as the other insurers, Twin City argues in its complaint the village’s choice to knowingly distribute contaminated water does not qualify for coverage under the village’s policy.
Twin City is represented in the action by attorneys Dena Economou, Gerald E. Ziebell and Jocelyn F. Cornbleet, of the firm of Karbal, Cohen, Economou, Silk & Dunne, of Chicago.