Cochran Firm featured in HBO’s Mann v. Ford new documentary on environmental racism
By Earnest McBride
JA Contributing Editor
It took the remarkable foresight of the late Johnny Cochran to bring together two such distant and disparate humans as the self-described bleach-blonde “Barbie,” Vicki Gilliam of Clinton, MS, and carioca-hued Wayne Mann of the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe of New Jersey. Before he died in March 2005, world-famous defense attorney Cochran was all about obtaining “justice for injured people, their families and ordinary citizens.”
And he set up the nation’s largest personal injury firm to back up his claims. In the minds of a group of environmental scientists hired by the plaintiff’s attorneys, there is no greater underdog in the world of environmental racism than the African American/Native American ethnic mix making up the Ramapough people.Wayne Mann approached the Cochran firm in 2006, thinking his tribe had a good case against Ford because of the company’s bad behavior in bringing death and destruction to his homeland with little or no regard for the negative impact Ford’s toxic wastes would have on their lives.
Vicki Gilliam, an associate of the Cochran Law Firm through its Jackson office, was assigned their case as the lead attorney. In Mann v. Ford, HBO Documentaries has put together a frequently gut-wrenching, empathetic cinematic account of Ford Motor Company’s death sentence placed upon the Ramapough nation, revealed when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forced Ford to admit to dumping “millions of gallons of paint sludge and other industrial waste in this mountain community,” on tribal lands and in the depleted iron mines of nearby Upper Ringwood, New Jersey, from its plant in Mahwah, N. J. EPA designated the 500-acre area a Superfund Site in 1983 and Ford agreed to clean it up within 10 years, but only scraped away the surface toxins before leaving it in 2004.
The tribe has lived at this same location for 200 years. Ford started dumping its millions of tons of toxic waste on the tribal land 44 years ago. Mann informed Cochran firm lawyers in Manhattan that he spoke on behalf of nearly 700 of his fellow tribe members. The earliest phase of the lawsuit included well-known legal activists like Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Joseph Rosato of New York. But the real work eventually redounded to the Cochran office in Jackson, where the feisty Vicki Gilliam was assigned as the lead attorney. The 13-count suit filed in state Superior Court in Paterson, N. J., alleged fraud and negligence and asked for medical monitoring and compensation that would eventually be assessed at over $2 billion in all.
The borough of Ringwood was also put on notice that it also might be sued. The attorneys said they would seek $3 million per resident, a total that could exceed $2 billion. Apart from the early discovery of the source of the rampant deaths and constant sickness among the Ramapough, two shocking developments were brought out in the HBO documentary. First, the widely praised appointment of Lisa Jackson, the former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to be the nation’s EPA administrator, turned out to be a dud after her confirmation and the go-slow approach she adopted in indicting Ford for lying about its failed cleanup of the Upper Ringwood Superfund site.
The Ramapough tribe had come to Washington to lend visible and vocal support for Jackson by sitting directly behind her during the Congressional hearings on her appointment and testifying on her behalf. The second shocker was Vicki Gilliam’s removal as lead attorney just as a settlement with Ford was about to be considered. Vicki was breaking up with her original law partnership in Jackson at about the same time that the Cochran firm decided to close down its Jackson office.
“I was with the Cochran firm,” she said after previewing the film to an overflow crowd Monday evening at her Clinton office. “My old law partners decided to move to New Orleans. This case was being handled by the Cochran national group. They had the rights to it. I had no right to contact the clients after they shifted the lead attorney’s role. And when they closed down the Jackson office, I wanted to know if I was still involved with the case. They said, well, if we have to go to trial, you’ll be a part of it.”
Apparently, the firm, whose national office is in Dothan, Alabama, would settle out of court for a lot less than anybody had expected, especially Vicki Gilliam. “I didn’t know what the settlement was until I saw this documentary,” she said Monday. “And when I saw it in January, after they had sent me a copy, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’” Her disappointment lay primarily in the difference between the amounts the original set of lawyers viewed as just compensation for individual tribal members, about $3 million each, or $2 billion total.
The film reported that the average payout was under $8,000 per plaintiff. The total paid by Ford to plaintiffs was $13.5 million. “To put two-and-a-half years of your life into a case and to believe in what you’re doing, then have someone call to ask what’s going on in that case, it can be very frustrating,” she said. Although she is still perplexed over the Cochran firm’s abrupt displacement of her from the lead attorney’s role, she remains philosophical over the ultimate outcome, given the effort her team made in seeking environmental justice for the Ramapough.
“I want people to see there are good plaintiffs’ lawyers who care and who are compassionate and who work really hard for their clients,” she said after the showing of the documentary. “And for anybody to take that away from this movie, then I’ve achieved what I wanted. And that is in addition to the story about the people.” Ford, too, remains under EPA constraints. Ford is obligated to clean up the entire toxic mess it made in the Ramapough community, Gilliam says.
“Twelve-and-a-half million is not much,” she says. “But Ford is putting out millions of dollars in the cleanup. Absolutely, they have to clean it all up, whatever that costs.” The film debuted on July 18 and can be seen on HBO at varies times over the next month. Other HBO play dates listed on the HBO Website: July 21 (9:00 a.m.), 23 (10:30 a.m. ET; 1:00 p.m. PT), 26 (3:30 p.m., 12:35 a.m.) and 31 (4:15 p.m.).