Tyson now faces nine lawsuits over 2019 Hanceville plant spill

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The June 6, 2019, spill occurred at the Tyson/River Valley Ingredients rendering plant near Hanceville.  (Photo courtesy of Worth Sparkman/Tyson)

HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Over two years have passed since a June 6, 2019, spill at the Tyson Farms/River Valley Ingredients rendering plant near Hanceville triggered a large fish kill on the Mulberry Fork that extended down to the Sipsey River in Walker County. That time has been busy for the poultry giant; in all, nine lawsuits have been filed against Tyson and its subsidiaries, seven of them in Walker County: 

  • Kayla Mims vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2019-900225, filed June 22, 2019, before Judge Doug Farris 
  • Sipsey Heritage Commission and others vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2019-900252, filed July 19, 2019, before Judge Doug Farris 
  • Office of the Attorney General vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2020-900123, filed April 29, 2020, before Judge Doug Farris 
  • Mark Griffin vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2020-900242, filed Aug. 19, 2020, before Judge Hoyt Elliott 
  • Jasper Water Works vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2021-900126, filed June 4, 2021, before Judge Doug Farris 
  • Kathy Russell and others vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2021-900127, filed June 6, 2021, before Judge Hoyt Elliott 
  • Tiffany Ashley and others vs. Tyson Farms Inc. and others, Case No. CV-2021-900128, filed June 6, 2021, before Judge Joletta Barrentine 

Attorneys for plaintiffs in the various cases filed a motion to consolidate all cases under Judge Doug Farris. Tyson and other defendants have opposed the request. The court has not yet responded. 

Walker County cases 

Kayla Mims 

June 14, 2019, Mims was hospitalized for sepsis due to “a severe bacterial infection later confirmed to be caused by E. coli. High levels of E. coli are confirmed to have been present in the area of the Mulberry fork subsequent to the wastewater spill at the River Valley Ingredients location.” Mims filed suit against Tyson Farms Inc., Tyson Cullman office manager Ronald Boatright, River Valley Ingredients and Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board. 

Sipsey Heritage Commission and others 

July 19, 2019, the Sipsey Heritage Commission and Chandler Holdings, along with 40 individual property owners along the Mulberry and Sipsey Forks of the Black Warrior River, filed suit against Tyson Farms Inc., River Valley Ingredients LLC, RVI Hanceville plant manager Jason Spann, American Proteins Inc. and Hydraservice Inc.  

In addition to the Sipsey Heritage Commission and Chandler Holdings, plaintiffs include Marnice Aaron, Sidney Aaron, Neal Ballenger, Ann Burke, Michael Cates, Joseph Christianson, Lisa Christianson, Robert Earl Clifton, Billy Joey Dill, Susan Donaldson, Ed Frazier, Norma Jane Green, Ricky Hall, John Lively, Linda Lively, Billy Parson, Chris Peed, Kevin Perkins, Roger Perkins, Jimmy Phillips, Michael D. Phillips, Regina Phillips, Iris Ramey, Robert Ramey, Fred Rutkowski, Sr., Rita Rutkowski, Kari Salomaa, Martha Salomaa, Betty Shed, Don Smith, Chiyako Starnes, Norman Starnes, Rex Starnes, Toby Stover, Paul Wigley, Kerri Wigley, Westin Wilborn, A.C. Williams, Mechelle Williams and Dennis Yglesias. 

According to the complaint, plaintiffs who live or own property on the river, “fear to go outside, use the river, fish in the river or let their animals use the river because of these spills. Some of these Plaintiffs use the river as a means for living and fear such way of life has been altered forever costing them money and happiness.” 

State Attorney General’s Office 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on April 29, 2020 filed a lawsuit in the Walker County Circuit Court on behalf of the State, Alabama Department of Environmental Management and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, declaring: 

“This is a civil action against Tyson for violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act (‘AWPCA’) and the Alabama Environmental Management Act (‘AEMA’) and certain regulations promulgated under each statute, as a result of violations of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, and unpermitted discharges of wastewater and/or partially treated wastewater from Tyson’s processing facility into waters of the State. In addition, the Plaintiffs allege herein that Tyson engaged in negligent and wanton conduct by causing a public nuisance, committing a trespass to State land and by committing a trespass to chattel, resulting in the death of various species of fish and other wildlife.  

Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief as well as the recovery of civil penalties and compensatory and punitive damages from Tyson for alleged violations of the law of the State of Alabama.” 

Mark Griffin 

Mark Griffin filed suit August 19, 2020, against Tyson, River Valley Ingredients, Hydraservice, Jason Spann and the Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board. The complaint alleged that Griffin contracted severe illness due to exposure to contaminated water. He suffered a bacterial infection that affected body tissues and required 12 surgeries. 

Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board 

In June 2021, Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board, a co-defendant with Tyson in several cases, filed its own suit against the company, River Valley Ingredients and Hydraservice, alleging that treatment of contaminated water from the spill increased the board’s cost and “caused JWWSB to lose money as it was unable to sell the water it flushed from the system and it credited each of its wholesale customers’ account for the amount of water flushed by them.” 

The suit further alleges a significant reduction in the value of real estate on the Mulberry Fork owned by the board. 

Kathy Russell and others 

Kathy Russell, Tiffany Ashley and Krystal Stasko filed a class action against Tyson, River Valley Ingredients, Hydraservice and the Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board on June 6, 2021, on behalf of themselves and “others similarly situated” (property and business owners in areas near the river, as well as customers who got water from the Jasper Water Works and Sewer Board between June 6, 2019, and June 6, 2020), alleging negligence, wantonness, liability and nuisance. 

Tiffany Ashley and others 

Tiffany Ashley, Charles Richard Corry and The Bullpen Steakhouse filed suit on the same day as Kathy Russell, against the same defendants and alleging the same charges. Attorneys for the plaintiffs recently filed a motion to dismiss this case, as its plaintiffs can be included under the “others similarly situated” in the Russell case. 

Federal class action cases 

In addition to the seven Walker County cases, two cases similar to, but preceding the last two cases above, are pending in federal court. 

The Jasper-based law firm of Nelson, Bryan & Jones and the Birmingham-based firm of Goldasich, Vick & Fulk filed federal class actions against Tyson, Hydraservice, Jason Spann and the Jasper Water Work and Sewer Board in the Northern District of Alabama U.S. Federal District Court July 24, 2019: 

  • 5:2019cv01179 – entitled “Russell et al v. Tyson Farms Inc. et al”  
  • 5:2019cv01180 – entitled “Ashley et al v. Tyson Farms, Inc. et al” 

The two federal class actions were consolidated into a single proceeding by the federal court. The complaint for case 01180 declares that the suit seeks: 

“To recover damages suffered by Plaintiffs and the Class Members as a result of the contamination of the Mulberry Fork segment of the Warrior River, and the subsequent transmission of unsafe and/or tainted water to residents, property owners and/or business owners in the State of Alabama including, but not limited to, residents, property owner, and/or business owners in Walker County, Alabama and Cullman County, Alabama.” 

Plaintiffs in the two consolidated cases include Tiffany Ashley, Kathy Russell, Krystal Sasko, Charles Richard Corry, The Bullpen Steakhouse and “All Alabama residents who own or lease residential or commercial property and/or personal property that has been or will in the future be damaged as a result of the June 6, 2019, wastewater spill/contamination and the subsequent containment, handling and/or remediation of said spill/contamination, and/or all Alabama residents who have experienced a negative effect on his/her/their use of natural resources and/or the general/normal use of their real property and/or personal property as a result of the June 6, 2019, wastewater spill/contamination and the subsequent containment, handling and/or remediation of said spill/contamination. 

“This class further includes all Alabama residents who have suffered or will in the future suffer any legally cognizable business and/or economic losses and/or damages as a result of the June 6, 2019, wastewater spill/contamination and the subsequent containment, handling and/or remediation of said spill/contamination.” 

Tyson has challenged the broadness of the class definition. 

The consolidated case has been assigned to Judge Liles C. Burke. 

All cases, local and federal, are still active. 

Tyson has not issued statements specific to the various suits. Worth Sparkman, external communications director for Tyson, issued this statement in May 2020:Tyson aims to be a strong partner and responsible member of the communities we serve and in which our team members live and work. We take our obligations to our neighbors seriously and, since acquiring the Hanceville facility in late 2018, we have made significant investments to help bring it up to Tyson’s standards. We will respond to the legal claims in the appropriate forum.” 

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com