Late Limestone Township resident Edith Quick didn't live to see any resolution of the lawsuit over the 1988 Shell Oil pipeline spill she filed in 2001. She died of liver failure on April 10, 2012, which the lawsuit alleges was caused by contamination of her drinking water well.
But her name is still among the 25 wrongful death claims and more than 80 personal injury claims still in Kankakee County court. A $46 million settlement with Shell Oil over property damage already has been reached in the case and paid to property owners for damage caused when 100,000 gallons of SU 2000 gasoline leaked into area groundwater.
The wrongful death and personal injury claims have continued to linger for 14 years.
"This was always a part of the case. It was just on the back burner for a while as the property damage was resolved," said Ken Lumb, an attorney with the Chicago law firm of Corboy & Demetrio, which is representing the Limestone Township residents.
Shell Oil in court filings systematically has denied the high death toll claimed in the case, although neither side is close to proving or disproving allegations that the contamination of drinking water wells can be linked to it. The lawsuit claims a host of injuries and deaths to ailments ranging from kidney disease, bladder disease and liver failure to more than 50 cases of cancer.
John Galvin, the attorney representing Shell, of the St. Louis law firm of Fox Galvin LLC, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The sides are sharing information about Shell's handling of the spill and medical records of the claimants. With thousands of documents to review, the case is expected to move slowly. But one key issue is yet to be resolved — whether the statute of limitations has run out.
The spill occurred 27 years ago. The lawsuit is now 14 years old. The statute of limitations in wrongful death and personal injury cases is generally two years.
Shell has argued unsuccessfully to dismiss the case thus far, but Circuit Court Judge Gordon Lustfeldt, who denied Shell's motion to dismiss it in October 2014, indicated he might be willing to revisit the issue, according to court records.
"It's troubling that they're taking this approach, but it's not surprising," Lumb said.
Quick and her family were the first to attach their names to the case. She was diagnosed with liver failure in 1997. It was six years after Shell's pipeline had burst and three years after a Shell contractor started quarterly testing her drinking water well. The contractor, Parson's Engineering Science Inc., of California, repeatedly had found the well safe, according to court records.
But physicians at Presence St. Mary's Hospital in 2001 found toluene in her blood, a toxic chemical and component of SU 2000 gasoline known to cause liver damage. A private firm hired by the family and the Kankakee County Health Department tested her well immediately following the diagnosis and also found MTBE, a gasoline additive, as well as benzene.
Toluene and benzene both are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in drinking water because of their serious health effects. Benzene is a known human carcinogen.
The lawsuit quickly followed, galvanizing the quickly growing residential area of Limestone Township, which relied heavily on well water. The geology of the area contributed to problems as the limestone bedrock reaches close to the surface and is fractured, helping contaminants move easily and unpredictably throughout local aquifers.
Shell found MTBE in about 42 private wells within a one-mile radius of the spill following testing in 2002, including in the Hillside Manor, Bower, Oakdale Acres and El Rancho subdivisions, according to court records. All were well below advisory drinking water limits recommended by the EPA. The agency has determined current research on MTBE is "not adequate to estimate potential health risks."
Ultimately, the $46 million settlement Shell agreed to in March 2008 provided $26 million for property damages to 1,400 residents living in proximity to the spill. Another $20 million was used to extend water mains from Kankakee, relinquishing the area's dependence on well water. It was the largest legal settlement in Kankakee County history.
The lawsuit's history continues to be a significant factor in the case.
For one, the number of claimants for personal injury has grown from eight to more than 100, according to court records. Claims for wrongful death are at 25, whereas there previously were none. Lumb said he expects more could come as time progresses.
"For many of these injuries, there is a long latency period," Lumb said. "The harmful effect doesn't appear for decades after."
Time, however, also has been on Shell's side.
The statute of limitations potentially could derail the case. Lustfeldt outlined potential issues with three claimants in his October 2014 ruling which could play into Shell's favor. The timing of when injuries were discovered, when claimants died, the date they filed the claim and even the legal status of deceased claimants' estates potentially could bar claims.
The sides are exchanging medical records and other information that weigh on the issue. Lustfeldt acknowledged lingering arguments in his opinion saying, after that information is reviewed, "the Court's ruling may then be different."
The attorneys representing Limestone Township residents are reaching all the way back to 1994 to make their case.
That's when they claim a Shell employee addressed the Kankakee County Board to announce the company would waive any statute of limitations related to the spill, according to court documents. A letter the company sent to county officials prior to that April 1994 meeting apparently also stated the same.
"Shell's claim is that they never waived the statute of limitations," said Robert Bingle, an attorney representing the Limestone Township residents. "Now it's time to determine if there is enough evidence that they did, so in the interim we're gathering that evidence."