George Bates and David Joyner of Calhoun County filed a lawsuit April 15 in the Etowah County Circuit Court against attorney Donald Stewart and the Abernathy Trust Foundation for an accounting of the settlement funds. The original case was set to be tried in Etowah County to ensure the defendants could get an impartial jury.
Bates and Joyner were two of many plaintiffs in the 2003 Sabrina Abernathy v. Monsanto Company case, in which a $300 million settlement — 40 percent of which went to attorneys’ fees — was awarded in compensation for west Anniston residents’ exposure to PCB contamination. Monsanto made PCBs from 1929 to 1971 at its west Anniston plant.
Stewart, who represented the plaintiffs in the Abernathy case, was awarded control of the settlement funds by the court under the condition the money be distributed to the plaintiffs and used for other purposes, such as establishing health clinics. Stewart established the Abernathy Trust Foundation to administer the settlement funds.
In the lawsuit, Bates and Joyner claim an accounting of the use of the settlement funds has never been provided to plaintiffs in the Abernathy case as required by Alabama law.
The Alabama Code of Law, section 19-3B-205(a-c), states a trustee may file an accounting of the trustee’s administration of a trust in court at any time and seek a partial or final settlement thereof … and the accounting must show all receipts and disbursements occurring during the accounting period.
Bates and Joyner also allege their attorney William Rutledge has demanded an accounting from Stewart but was ignored.
“It’s meritless,” Stewart said of the lawsuit. “(Rutledge) has no basis for his lawsuit.”
Stewart said Rutledge had solicited his former clients, Bates and Joyner, with half-truths.
“We got releases to every single one of our clients … we provided information to every single one of our clients,” Stewart said. “This very issue has been decided before by the court, and I can prove that, too.”
Repeated efforts to reach Rutledge on Thursday and Friday were not successful.
Bates declined to discuss the lawsuit.
“I can only talk through my lawyer,” he said.
Efforts to reach Joyner were unsuccessful.
Stewart said Rutledge has a history of filing meritless lawsuits in Anniston.
“In Anniston, this is his modus operandi,” Stewart said.
Rutledge has been involved in several lawsuits that have made headlines in recent years, including suits against the dissolution of the Joint Powers Authority, which oversaw McClellan development, and a libel suit against The Anniston Star.
Those suits have since been thrown out by the courts.
The Bates and Joyner lawsuit requests a trial by jury.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.