Lawsuit targets beryllium producer
April 1, 2000
A nationwide class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Brush Wellman beryllium company on behalf of all American workers exposed to the potentially deadly metal while employed by Brush Wellman customers.
The suit demands that Brush Wellman pay for blood testing for the workers to determine whether they have an incurable lung disease caused by toxic beryllium dust.
Tens of thousands of current and former employees of past and present Brush customers could be eligible, the suit states.
"I hope [the lawsuit] has a major impact on the lives of the workers at risk,'' said Steve Baughman Jensen, an attorney for the workers. "There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of workers out there who already have this disease and are walking around with it and don't know it. For them, we hope that this lawsuit will get them diagnosed and get them treatment.''
It is the second class-action suit filed in recent weeks against Brush Wellman, the nation's leading beryllium producer. On Feb. 14, Toledo-area construction workers sued, demanding medical testing for up to 7,000 local building trade employees.
The latest suit was filed last week in federal court in Cleveland, where Brush Wellman has headquarters. It was filed by Mr. Jensen and other attorneys for the Dallas law firm of Baron & Budd, which specializes in personal injury cases involving toxins.
The suit alleges Brush Wellman did not adequately warn customers and their employees about the dangers of beryllium and misrepresented the hazards to workers and regulators.
Brush Wellman attorney Thomas Clare declined to comment, saying the beryllium company does not comment on pending litigation.
An estimated 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including at least 75 current or former workers at Brush's plant near Elmore.
Last year, The Blade published a six-part series that documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the American beryllium industry - wrongdoing that caused the injuries and deaths of dozens of workers. The series has sparked numerous reforms and actions, including two congressional investigations.
Advocates for beryllium disease victims welcomed the class-action suit.
"It's obvious that thousands and thousands of people have been exposed to this toxic dust, and they need to know if they have the disease,'' said Sarah Ogdahl, of the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action, which has been pressing Brush Wellman to offer blood tests to residents near the Elmore plant.
Theresa Norgard, whose husband, Dave, contracted beryllium disease at the Elmore plant, said: "A lot of the truth has been hidden about the toxicity of beryllium for a really long time. So any time we can shed some light on the real health effects of beryllium, I think it is great.''
Invisible amounts of beryllium dust can cause lung disease. Those exposed can develop the illness years after the last exposure - up to 40 years later. Symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath; some victims cannot breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank.
The class-action suit does not seek damages; rather, it demands that Brush Wellman establish a fund to pay for periodic medical evaluations of workers, including physicals, blood tests, and follow-up exams. The medical program, the suits states, should apply to all employees of Brush customers, "no matter how small their recorded exposures'' to beryllium dust.
Attorneys file class-action suits when it would be impractical to file thousands of individual complaints. A handful of named plaintiffs represent the larger group, and if the lawsuit succeeds, everyone in the class benefits.
In this suit, the four named plaintiffs are identified as workers at Fulton Bellows & Components in Knoxville, Tenn. The suit states they "have been exposed to respirable particles of beryllium created through various uses of beryllium copper supplied to their employer by Brush Wellman.''
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