Settlements Over Dead Fish Don't Stop Litigation Flow

OGeechee River event killed 38,000 fish; plaintiffs blamed fabric company

, Daily Report


Photo of Christy Hull Eikhoff
A&B's Christy Hull Eikhoff, who represents the fabric company, says it's still unclear why the fish died.

Despite the recent settlements of 60 cases, a 2011 incident on the Ogeechee River that left thousands of fish dead continues to spawn litigation in southeast Georgia against Chicago-based King America Finishing Inc.

"It's not all over," said Alston & Bird partner Christy Hull Eikhoff, who is leading the company's defense along with associate Meaghan Boyd.

In May 2011, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division responded to reports of a widespread fish kill on the Ogeechee River. After an investigation, the agency determined that approximately 38,000 fish died of Columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stressors. Those stressors could include changing water temperature and chemical spills, according to the agency's published report. The dead fish were discovered in a 77-mile zone downstream from the discharge pipe of the company's fabric finishing plant in Screven County.

Owners of homes, farms and businesses downstream from the plant sued the company in multiple jurisdictions alleging damage to the value and enjoyment of their property as a result of the dead fish and concerns about the safety of the water.

Property owners have made about 300 claims in 85 separate cases, Eikhoff said, with 60 matters before Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John Turner settling on Aug. 9.

"Aug. 9 was a good milestone," Eikhoff said.

The terms of the settlements were undisclosed.

"It's all confidential," said I. Gregory Hodges of Oliver Maner in Savannah, who was both the first named plaintiff and the lead plaintiffs' counsel in one of the settled cases. Hodges withdrew as a plaintiff after the defense planned a move to have him disqualified. His wife and father remained as plaintiffs, along with at least three other individuals, plus a business and another farm. Partners at Oliver Maner said Hodges has a family farm in the affected area.

The Hodges lawsuit claimed damage to real property, continuing nuisance, trespass and punitive damages. The suit claimed loss of value and enjoyment of the property as residents in the area were warned against swimming or fishing in the river following the kill. The complaint alleged that King America's "repeated improper and illegal discharge of toxic chemicals into the Ogeechee River" caused "extensive death and destruction of aquatic life, including fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles."

King America did not admit fault in the settlements. The company flatly maintains it did not cause the fish to die.

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