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January 13, 2010 - TVA Seeks More Time to Prep for Spill Lawsuits

Attorneys for the Tennessee Valley Authority told a federal judge Tuesday that they may need a year to prepare for dozens of lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the utility's coal ash spill, contending the time could be shortened if the court allowed the utility to avoid repeated pretrial motions.

TVA lawyers and nine attorneys representing hundreds of plaintiffs began to hash out the details of the discovery process, which is a legal term for gathering facts on what happened in the Dec. 22, 2008, spill in Kingston. About 5.4 million cubic yards of toxin-laden ash spilled into the Emory River and the surrounding countryside.

TVA attorneys told U.S. Magistrate Bruce Guyton that they hope to avoid repeated depositions in 50 new cases filed since August.

The utility has asked the court to give the new cases the same orders about disclosing evidence and document preservation that already have applied to seven earlier lawsuits.

TVA also proposed a schedule that would allow the parties to serve written discovery after Jan. 26 and would agree to make other such disclosures in February.

To date, 57 lawsuits are seeking damages against TVA. Three homes were lost and several properties were damaged. Some residents have complained about headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments since the spill and have blamed TVA for their health problems.

A TVA attorney, said the lawsuits represent more than 560 individual plaintiffs and would be time consuming without the court's consideration to cut pretrial maneuvers.

"We want to minimize our discovery time. With 500 depositions, it would take as much as 250 days to complete even at two per day," he told the court.

Plaintiffs' attorneys responded that the claims needed prompt resolution and most likely would agree to avoid a long pretrial process.

Guyton encouraged both sides to settle as many cases as possible without going to trial.

TVA has tried to avoid costly litigation and had asked in earlier court filings for the cases to be dismissed, arguing that as a government entity it should not be held liable as a private employer would be. A judge has not ruled on the request.

On the matter involving whether TVA is immune "everybody is waiting to hear the ruling on that," said an Oak Ridge attorney representing four of the litigants.

A ruling favorable to TVA "could get all of these cases thrown out," he said.

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