Attorney puts school and town leaders on notice in MVRHS turf debate

Superintendent of Schools stands behind decision to use synthetic turf.

School officials are closing in on a decision of how to upgrade school fields. – MVT File photo

Seasonal Tisbury resident James Ferraro Jr., a lawyer with a prominent Miami-based law firm that specializes in large-scale tort cases, has warned Island school and town leaders that any effort to install synthetic turf fields at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) could result in future litigation.

In a letter from the Ferraro Law Firm, dated Dec. 1 and addressed to Superintendent of Schools Matthew D’Andrea, Mr. Ferraro Jr. warned of potential health risks to athletes, environmental impacts, and the possibility of purchasing a defective product with taxpayer dollars.

The letter was copied to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Richard Smith, MVRHS committee chairman Robert Lionette, Principal Sara Dingledy, school finance manager Mark Friedman, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) Adam Turner, MVC development of regional impact (DRI) coordinator Paul Foley, and MV@Play president David Wallis. It was also copied to all of the Island’s boards of selectmen, boards of health, and finance committees.

“I am writing this letter as a concerned part-time resident of Martha’s Vineyard and an attorney with experience in mass tort litigation,” Mr. Ferraro Jr. began his letter.

The Ferraro Law Firm is based in Miami, with an office in Washington, D.C. James Ferraro Jr.’s father, attorney James Ferraro Sr., started the firm in 1985; it has a national reputation for representing plaintiffs in mass tort cases dealing primarily with asbestos and defective drugs. Mr. Ferraro Sr., his partner, and other lawyers in his firm have licenses to practice in Massachusetts.

“As the Ferraro Law Firm prepares for potential future litigation against the synthetic turf industry and premises owners, I was dismayed to learn that Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is planning to install these very fields,” Mr. Ferraro Jr. wrote. “Hence, my objective in writing this letter is threefold: 1) shed light on the potential dangers that synthetic turf fields present to the residents of Martha’s Vineyard and the Island’s ecosystem; 2) highlight that the risks (direct and indirect) associated with these fields far outweigh any potential benefits, and 3) strongly encourage reassessment of the decision to install synthetic turf fields while putting all decisionmakers on notice.”

Decisionmakers include MVRHS and MV@Play, a group organized by three community members — David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert “Spike” Smith — who have identified the need for an updated and expanded athletic facility. In May, they unveiled a privately funded $12 million project to create a centralized facility for use by the high school, youth programs, summer camps, and adult leagues. The group has been working with two representatives from Gale Associates, an engineering and consulting firm that specializes in athletic-facility planning and design.

Since the project was first proposed, community members have expressed concerns with the synthetic turf material, and any corresponding health risks. Others had concerns about the feasibility of funding any necessary maintenance, upkeep, and replacement of the synthetic turf in the long term, and any potential impacts on the watershed.

In a conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Ferraro Jr. said his involvement on the Island as a summer resident made him aware of the synthetic turf debate, describing his letter as “the right thing to do,” “a warning,” and a “good opportunity to maybe attempt to stop it in its tracks.”

Mr. Ferraro Jr., in his letter, wrote, “Nonetheless, once comprehensive epidemiological studies are performed to analyze large populations of athletes exposed to synthetic turf, the scientific link will be established to pave the way for clear (albeit long overdue) regulation and widespread litigation against manufacturers and premise owners of synthetic turf [Emphasis is Mr. Ferraro’s]. The consensus within the mass tort plaintiffs’ bar is that it is not a matter of if, but when, synthetic turf litigation will commence.”

He said the potential health hazards from synthetic turf were what concerned him the most. “The dangers associated with many of these compounds have been known for decades,” he continued in his letter. “Yet now that they are packaged into lustrous fields and marketed as ecofriendly (as opposed to a rugged industrial product), suddenly the dangers are seemingly concealed and forgotten.”

Mr. Ferraro Jr. told The Times he is not currently representing any turf opponents on the Vineyard, and has no “attorney-client relationships on-Island.” Although he is not involved in any turf litigation — it’s in its “infancy” — Mr. Ferraro said he is waiting to see what happens.

“If someone pleaded their case, it’s not to say I wouldn’t potentially file a case in the near future,” he said.

Mr. Ferraro Jr. has been looking into turf issues, and said there were no lawsuits regarding health concerns yet, but there had been suits filed for “products that are failing,” referencing Florida and New Jersey.

Reactions to the letter

Mr. D’Andrea told The Times on Tuesday that he believed the letter was sent from Mr. Ferraro Jr. as “a concerned Island member.”

But as superintendent, Mr. D’Andrea said decisions that could impact student safety are always paramount, and that he relied on scientific-based data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to conclude that turf was safe. “The research I’ve done gives me the confidence to support this project as safe, and a project that allows for a centralized place for athletics in the Island community,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

MV@Play president David Wallis emailed a statement from MV@Play to The Times on Tuesday, echoing Mr. D’Andrea’s response to potential liability: that they were confident in the safety of a turf field. They said they “respectfully disagreed” with Mr. Ferraro’s views on synthetic turf. “We are confident in the products specified for this project. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Environmental Health have determined the use of these products pose no elevated risks to human health or the environment,” they said.

MV@Play board members said they have not seen “field failures or other problems” cited by turf opponents, speaking with school athletic directors who have successfully installed synthetic fields on their campuses.

“We are confident the products we have specified will provide a safe and reliable playing surface for many years to come,” they said.

Why turf?

In their email, MV@Play explained that the turf discussion began when Gale Associates conducted a review of the fields at MVRHS and the amount of use each field could handle.

“It became clear that the solution was to create a mix of synthetic turf and grass fields,” they said.

The current proposal calls for one synthetic turf field, inside a new 400-meter track. This field would carry the majority of the high school sports load — field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and football — to allow grass fields to recover or grow in.

“One synthetic turf field can handle three times the use of a grass field, and can be played on in all weather conditions,” the email said.

They said the purpose of MV@Play has been to help the high school repair the failing and unsafe conditions of MVRHS athletic facilities. Both the high school and MV@Play will go before the MVC for a public hearing sometime in January. In their statement, MV@Play said they hoped that the process at the MVC would “focus and embrace the science and merits of this project.”

MVC executive director Adam Turner told The Times on Monday that they received the initial application last week. Mr. Turner said they will review it and gather all the necessary information required to initiate a public hearing, scheduled sometime in January.

“It’s a pretty important application,” Mr. Turner said. “So we’re going to review it, speak to the applicant, and put together a public hearing that will set out all of the facts that go along with the application.”