In a ruling that could have national impact, a U.S. appeals court has ordered an investigation into "overwhelming evidence" of misconduct by the giant Beatrice Foods Co. in a multimillion-dollar toxic waste suit.

The 1st U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed claims Wednesday that chemicals from 15 acres of property owned by Beatrice leaked into nearby drinking wells in the Boston suburb of Woburn and caused a rash of leukemia deaths.But the court ordered a lower-court judge to rehear evidence of alleged pollution from a Beatrice tannery. The court said "misconduct" by the company and its lawyers in failing to supply evidence sought in the trial of a lawsuit filed by the victims' families could lead to a new trial.

A lawyer for the families hailed the ruling, saying the order to investigate the conduct of a company as big as Beatrice and its highly regarded Boston law firm, Hale & Dorr, marked a major crackdown on suspected polluters by the courts.

"There's never been a ruling to this magnitude regarding companies and law firms," said Boston lawyer Jan Schlictmann, who said the ruling "is of national significance."

"What the appeals court is saying is that no matter how powerful or influential a law firm or a company is, you have to obey the rules, and if you don't the court will order a full investigation and possible remedies," Schlictmann said.

A lawyer for Beatrice said he was "confident" that the company and the law firm will be vindicated in its handling of the case.

Lawyer Jerome P. Facher also praised the court's decision to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim that pollution from the company's property had caused the cancer deaths.

"The whole case we tried was the question involving the 15 acres, and whether pollutants from the 15 acres reached the wells," he said, " . . . and it's clear that part of the case is over."

Specifically, the appeals court directed U.S. District Judge Walter Jay Skinner to determine whether Beatrice was guilty of "dereliction" of duty by withholding a 1983 hydrogeologic report that may have confirmed groundwater contamination from the nearby tannery. The panel told Skinner to determine whether the families are entitled to any remedy, including the possibility of a new trial on the tannery issue that could lead to monetary damages.

"The families feel vindicated in their several years' struggles to make Beatrice obey the rules, and we're looking forward to the opportunity to determine the full extent of the abuse by Beatrice," Schlictmann said.

"As far as liability is concerned, Beatrice's responsibility regarding the tannery and the 15 acres are of equal importance."