3M, DuPont, and other makers of so-called forever chemicals face a new opponent in a string of pollution lawsuits who was the driving force behind record multibillion-dollar lawsuits over tobacco and opioids.

Joe Rice has been asked to join the group of lawyers leading lawsuits targeting per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, according to court filings in South Carolina this week. While lawyers for cities, towns, and water agencies have negotiated more than $13.5 billion in pollution settlements, Rice is being called in to help resolve tens of thousands of personal injury and property damage claims.

Signage stands outside the 3M Co. Cottage Grove Center in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The 69-year-old Rice is best known as the architect of the $264 billion tobacco settlement more than two decades ago that resolved states’ and cities’ suits seeking to recoup the health costs of treating illnesses tied to smoking. More recently, Rice led the effort to wring more than $50 billion out of makers, distributors, and sellers of opioids – highly addictive painkillers that led to the overdose deaths of hundreds of thousands of users and the addictions of millions more.

“When it comes to U.S. mass-tort cases, Joe Rice stands above the pack,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who teaches about product-liability issues. “He’s the go-to guy for most of these complicated cases. The companies know you can’t mess with him.”

PFAS chemicals were used in a variety of products, though the most recent water-pollution claims focused on PFAS-laced foams used to extinguish fires at military bases and airports. The substances don’t break down naturally and can settle in soil, water, and human bodies. Scientists estimate more than 200 million Americans have been exposed to PFAS through their drinking water. Researchers have linked cancers, liver damage, and compromised immune systems to PFAS exposure.

Thousands of PFAS suits from across the U.S. have been consolidated in multidistrict litigation (MDL) before a federal judge in Charleston, S.C., for pretrial information exchanges and test trials. Lawyers involved in the suits say Rice – who is based in Charleston – has decades of experience in structuring settlements involving massive numbers of claimants. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel still must decide whether Rice can join the leadership group. MDL judges routinely grant requests to bolster leadership groups.


“It’s a big case with national implications,” Rice said in an email. “I look forward to working” with the plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers “to move the case forward.”

Spokespeople at DuPont and 3M declined to comment.

Rice is being tapped to “address the evolving and still-unresolved claims in this complex and growing MDL,” according to an Aug. 21 court filing. His addition would “ensure the vigorous protection of the rights of all plaintiffs in this massive proceeding.”

His law firm, Motley Rice, is credited with bringing some of the first mass tort suits against the makers of asbestos in the early 1970s. Ron Motley – Rice’s longtime partner – made hundreds of millions in settlements after winning a string of asbestos cases. Motley died in 2013.

Rice also was one of the lead negotiators in lawsuits over the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent oil spill that fouled the Gulf of Mexico. Rice helped reach nearly $9 billion in settlements with London-based BP and a unit of Texas-based Halliburton over their mishandling of the rig.

“Joe Rice has been at the heart of the mass-tort system in this country from its inception with the asbestos cases,” Elizabeth Burch, a University of Georgia law professor who specializes in MDL cases. “He has a formidable reputation.”

The case is Aqueous Film-Forming Foams Products Liability Litigation, No. 18-mn-2873, U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina (Charleston).

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