As lawyers set the stage for a potential quick mediated legal settlement for a Delaware family of four severely injured by the illegal fumigation of a condominium neighboring their St. John rental unit in March 2015, the national media is focusing on the apparent shortcomings in the territory’s monitoring and control of the use of the banned pesticide by the corporate-owned franchise on St. Thomas of the international exterminating giant Terminix corporation.
The focus of attention, however, may be shifting to what CNN News in early September reports called the “history of corruption” in the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) which is responsible for monitoring pesticide use and training in the territory.
It was announced in early-September that renowned legal mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who served as administrator of the federal 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund in the World Trade Center attack settlement and other high-profile cases, would serve as mediator in late-September concerning litigation between the Esmond family, of Delaware, and Terminix on claims of liability stemming from the poisoning.
As required by securities law, publicly-traded Terminix formally notified federal securities officials of the company’s potential legal liability shortly after the March poisoning. The announcement of mediation with the renowned Feinberg portends a potential quick settlement between the family and Terminix that would address enormous long-term medical expenses and damages and settle investors concerns about the international corporation.
While the announcement of the mediation suggests potential for a quick settlement, the family of an educator, a doctor and their two teenage sons are receiving extensive medical care and facing extremely unfavorable, if not fully known, predictions of recovery, according to the cable news report.
“As two Delaware teens recovering from pesticide poisoning struggle to eat, walk and sit up on their own, an investigation into what went wrong highlights failures on several levels, including lax oversight and a history of corruption at the U.S. Virgin Islands government agency in charge of exterminators,” CNN reported in its lengthy update story aired on news programs in early September.
“History of Corruption”
While the CNN report dredged up the most notorious recent DPNR law enforcement lapses to support its allegation of the agency’s “history of corruption”, the latest national report and recent USVI news reports have continued to disregard the familial connection between the 2014 acting commissioner of the environmental enforcement agency who is still a top DPNR official and the former long-time manager of the St. Thomas Terminix operation who left the company in 2014 before the poisoning of the Esmond family.
St. John Tradewinds reported in July that Hans Oriol, the father of DPNR official Jean-Pierre Oriol, was listed on a current business web site as the manager of Terminix for more than nine years until sometime in 2014. Hans Oriol left the company sometime in 2014, according to an employee of Terminix on St. Thomas reached by St. John Tradewinds in July.
The younger Oriol has served as the director of the Division of Coastal Zone Management at DPNR since 2011. Jean-Pierre Oriol was named acting commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in early August 2014 by Governor John deJongh Jr.
DPNR media specialist Jamaal Nielson, a close associate of J.P. Oriol at the agency, has objected vehemently to any characterization by St. John Tradewinds of a connection between the Oriol father and son and the DPNR monitoring or enforcement efforts involving Terminix that have now been raised by the CNN report.
Family Connection Ignored
In two subsequent stories on the poisoning incident, the V.I. Daily News has questioned DPNR monitoring of pesticide applications and focused on DPNR’s lapsed training of pesticide professionals in the territory, including the Terminix manager who applied the toxic chemical at Sirenusa and apparently was recertified without retraining.
“The teens and their parents fell gravely ill and suffered seizures during a March vacation to St. John,” CNN recapped. “The family was exposed to methyl bromide, a restricted-use pesticide.”
“Recovery from their nerve damage has been slow and agonizing for the whole family, but it’s been the worst for the boys,” the CNN report continued. “The brothers were in medically-induced comas for weeks.”
“They are now conscious, family attorney James Maron said, but they are barely able to move,” the television news report added.
Lawyer Limits Statements
Atty. Maron talked with St. John Tradewinds on several occasions shortly after the poisoning, but at the time Atty. Maron emphasized he would not be commenting on any further developments medical or legal in consideration of the family’s privacy and any potential litigation.
Six months after the horrifying incident, their father, Steve Esmond, is slowly getting better as well, but suffers from severe tremors, struggles to speak and can’t turn the pages of a book, Atty. Maron told CNN in early September after the announcement of the involvement of Feinberg.
“Neurologically, it’s like being in a torture chamber,” Atty. Maron said in the CNN interview. Esmond and his boys are mentally “strong as an ox” and “100 percent cognizant,” but they are trapped in bodies badly damaged by the nerve agent, the CNN report continued.
Prior to the incident, the boys were athletic stars at their schools, CNN reported. The older brother had big prospects playing lacrosse and was already touring colleges, the report added.
Their mother, Teresa Devine, had less exposure to the toxic gas than the rest of the family and has made the strongest recovery, but she spends her days and nights keeping vigil over her boys, the news report continued.
“They’re extreme fighters, and that’s why they’re hanging on,” Atty. Maron told CNN.
The family was on vacation at the Sirenusa resort on St. John March 18 when two employees of the local Terminix fumigated the villa below theirs with methyl bromide, which is banned for residential use in the U.S., CNN explained.
The Environmental Protection Agency found traces of the lethal gas in the family’s villa in their subsequent investigation. The exposure was so significant inside the treated unit that six weeks after the family fell ill, dangerous amounts of methyl bromide were still being detected inside the villa, CNN said of the EPA report on its investigation into the incident.
Methyl bromide is incredibly toxic to humans, Dr. Reynold Panettieri Jr., the deputy director for the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology told CNN.
“I would say the prognosis, at best, is guarded,” Dr. Panettieri, who has not personally treated the family, told CNN. “As we know the victims have been off ventilators and they’ve been improved. But if that dose, even though it appeared to be acute, was over (a period of) hours, the damage to the nerves and to the brain itself may render it irreversibly damaged.”
Maron made no further public comment after announcing Terminix has agreed to enter mediation with Feinberg, who negotiated the settlements for the victims of the September 11 attacks. Mediation begins September 28.