In June 1996, about 650 plaintiffs in the unincorporated community of Hinkley won $333 million in an out-of-court lawsuit settlement with San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The proceedings were hidden from public view because PG&E agreed to have the case settled through private arbitration.
Because this wasn't a trial, the plaintiffs did not have the burden of proving that various cancers and other illnesses were related to PG&E's chromium-6 plume.
Records about who got what as a settlement were kept secret, but that would not have happened had the case gone to trial.
Hinkley residents signed nondisclosure agreements. "The lawyers really impressed upon them that if they disclosed their legal settlement, that not only would they have to give the money back, but they would be liable for damages," said Carmela Spasojevich, who grew up in Hinkley and sold her house to PG&E before relocating to Virginia.
Spasojevich, formerly Carmela Gonzalez, knew many people that were part of the settlement.
People around the country had visions of residents receiving millions of dollars, she said.
But the attorneys, who fronted the money to find documents and present the residents' case, were rewarded with about 40 percent of the settlement, plus an additional 10 percent for expenses, said Roberta Walker, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit.
Walker said she knew Hinkley residents who received as little as $10,000 from the settlement -- and one that received $2.5 million.
Other residents filed lawsuits on their own and settled privately with PG&E, with some reportedly receiving millions of dollars from the utility.