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March 29, 2016

Terminix to pay $10M in accidental poisoning of Delaware family

Couple and their two sons, vacationing at St. John resort, exposed to methyl bromide

Terminix International was charged Tuesday with multiple violations of U.S. law for illegally applying methyl bromide-containing pesticides at a U.S. Virgin Islands resort where a Delaware family was severely poisoned during a March 2015 vacation.

The corporation, in a plea agreement, will pay $10 million in criminal fines, community service and restitution payments, and face three years of probation, according to the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. The agreement has to be approved by the U.S. District Court in the Virgin Islands. 

Stephen Esmond, at the time, who was the head of Tatnall Middle School in Wilmington, his wife, Dr. Theresa Devine, a dentist in Broomall, Delaware County, and their two teenage sons, Ryan and Sean, were staying at a condo in the Sirenusa resort in St. John where they were exposed to methyl bromide and severely poisoned. All four family members were hospitalized, with Stephen Esmond and Ryan suffering from paralysis, and Sean in and out of a coma.

“When you break a law that protects public health, there are real victims and real consequences, as this case tragically shows,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This incident illustrates how important it is for EPA to enforce environmental laws and hold anyone accountable for endangering our safety. Today’s charges should send a clear message to the industry, and directs important funds toward training programs to help ensure this can’t happen again.”

As a condition of probation, Terminix is required to make "good faith efforts" to pay the family's past and future medical expenses through civil proceedings.

"If they do not do so before the end of the probationary period, they would be subject to an order of restitution and the government may petition the District Court to reopen the sentencing proceedings to seek recovery of past and future medical and other expenses," according to a Department of Justice release.

EPA banned the indoor use of methyl bromide products in 1984, with a few remaining applications severely restricted. The use of such pesticides are restricted due to their acute toxicity, and exposure can have serious health effects, including damage to the central nervous and respiratory systems.

After the government began its investigation of the Sirenusa accident, TERMINIX LP voluntarily ceased its use of methyl bromide in the United States and in U.S. territories, except for one remaining supervised government contract, federal prosecutors said.

According to information filed in federal court in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands on Tuesday, Terminix and its Virgin Islands operation knowingly applied the fumigant at the Sirenusa resort in St. John on or about Oct. 20, 2014, and on or about March 18, 2015. The companies were also charged with using it in 12 residential units in St. Croix and another unit in St. Thomas between September 2012 and February 2015.

On or about March 18, 2015, two employees of Terminix USVI used the pesticide in the lower rental unit of Building J at Sirenusa in St. John, prosecutors said. Methyl bromide migrated to the upper unit, which was occupied by Esmond and his family. 

The $10 million penalty includes $8 million in criminal fines, $1 million in restitution to the EPA for response and clean-up costs, and a $1 million community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the purpose of engaging a third party to provide training to pesticide applicators in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The case was investigated by EPA Criminal Investigation Division, the Virgins Islands government and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Senior Litigation Counsel Howard P. Stewart of the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim L. Chisholm of the District of the Virgin Islands are prosecuting the case with the assistance of Patricia Hick, EPA Region II Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsel.

The investigation is ongoing, prosecutors said.