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New public database retains documents surfaced in toxic tort litigation

December 4th, 2014  |  David Stephanides

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and The Graduate Center at the City University of New York have teamed to make public some 20,000 pages of benzene documents surfaced during litigation open for public inspection. A new searchable database archives previously secret oil and chemical industry memoranda, emails, letters, PowerPoints and meeting minutes that will grow over time.

The aim is to make such materials — most of which were produced during discovery in toxic tort litigation and have been locked away in file cabinets and hard drives — accessible to workers, journalists, academic researchers and others. Some are decades old, composed on manual typewriters; others are contemporary. The archives will shed light on toxic substances that continue to threaten public health, say the database creators.

The benzene documents are just the start. In coming months, CPI be posting hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery material from lawsuits involving lead, asbestos, silica, hexavalent chromium and PCBs, among other dangerous substances. The inspiration for the project came when CPI realized that in its reporting on environmental and workplace issues, it routinely obtained reams of court documents. Often, these documents hold information found nowhere else.

Last year, CPI reached out to William Baggett Jr., a lawyer in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who had acquired more than 400,000 pages of documents from a decade-long case against manufacturers of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical used in plastics. Baggett agreed to give the Center all of them.

At the same time, public health historians David Rosner at Columbia and Gerald Markowitz at CUNY were collecting court documents to create a public database and had approached Baggett. CPI and Baggett then decided to collaborate.

Each document retained in the database will include the court case from which it came, including the case title, case number, court as well as date filed and date terminated. The original complaint for each lawsuit is also part of the database. The search interface also includes options to send documents or contact CPI.