Courtesy Jim FerarroWhen Donna Castillo pushed her daughter in a stroller on their daily walk around a Miami neighborhood in 1989, she could never have known that the repercussions of that day would echo in her family’s life for years to come. Donna was about two months pregnant on that warm day. She often took walks with her daughter to stay healthy. (Avoiding exercise during pregnancy is one of the notorious pregnancy myths you should ignore.) As she strolled past a local self-pick farm that grew strawberries and tomatoes, she noticed a large tractor, stuck in mud, jerking back and forth in a struggle to move forward. The tractor’s sprayer mechanism was still open, and as the wind shifted, Donna was doused in an odorless, tasteless, and colorless liquid. When she recounted the event to her husband, Juan, an accountant—and again to her obstetrician the next day—they both told her not to worry, and that it was most likely water.
Months later, Donna went into labor. She gave birth to their son Johnny, but to the parents’ horror, he was born with anolphthalmia, a rare condition in which a baby is born with no eyes. The couple struggled to understand how something so tragic could have happened to their baby. It would be years before they arrived at the grim conclusion that it was that fateful day Donna had been sprayed—not with water, but with an incredibly toxic pesticide called Benlate, manufactured by the chemical giant DuPont.
Following Johnny’s birth, Donna joined an international support group for those affected by the rare birth defect. Through the group, Donna learned about a group of 29 children in Scotland with anolphthalmia: Their mothers had all been exposed to Benlate while pregnant. An investigator for the London Observer contacted the farmer of the U-pick berry farm Donna had walked by during her exposure, and the farmer admitted that he had, in fact, used the same pesticide. Pesticides may also increase your risk of developing these dangerous medical conditions.
After approaching several lawyers about taking her case with no success, Donna walked into the office of Jim Ferraro and found the hope she had been searching for. Ferraro not only agreed to take the case, which was the first of its kind, but he worked tirelessly to find a way to beat the odds and win. A case against an industry giant like DuPont faced very long odds. Ferraro told Reader’s Digest, “No one would take her case, because no one fights a chemical company and wins. DuPont is like the Roman army.”
Courtesy Linda LoefflerFerraro thoroughly researched the chemical and discovered a study by the University of California that showed a 43 percent increase in ocular deformities in pregnant rats. That’s when Ferraro knew he had a case worth presenting. “I was sleeping four hours a night. I took 63 depositions in four countries. I was absolutely crazy,” he says. Despite numerous appeals by DuPont, Ferraro and the Castillo family finally prevailed. “It was ten years and one month later that we received the final ruling from the Supreme Court,” he recalls. The family was awarded damages totalling $4 million.
Now 26 years old, Johnny Castillo enjoys exploring his talents in music and singing, and attended the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. “He’s done really well,” Ferraro says. (This amazing school is teaching the blind how to “see” by using their tongues.)
Even though DuPont took the pesticide off the market during the appeal phase of the trial, Ferraro says there is still work to be done, and he hopes other lawyers won’t hesitate to get involved. Ferraro says that it’s too easy for corporations like DuPont to get past Environmental Protection Agency regulations and bring their harmful products to market in the United States. They conduct studies in a way that allows them to skew results in their favor. “These corporations fund the very studies that the EPA relies on. There’s no protection, and it’s incestuous,” he says. “It shouldn’t be this way, and it will affect thousands of lives if we can change this.”
Courtesy Jim FerraroFerraro’s new book, Blindsided: The True Story of One Man’s Crusade Against Chemical Giant DuPont For A Boy With No Eyes, was released in June and tells the incredible story of the Castillo family’s tragedy and triumph, and how one lawyer’s willingness to take on a powerful corporation made all the difference. The book is quickly climbing best-seller lists and a movie detailing the incredible story is currently in discussion.
Ferraro is quick to offer encouragement to the next generation of lawyers who hope to make positive changes in the lives of those most vulnerable. “I want young lawyers to take a chance and make something happen—because it’s not going to happen on its own,” he says.