Widower sues beryllium company

December 30, 1999

The widower of Marilyn Miller, a woman whose long battle with beryllium disease was chronicled in The Blade, filed suit yesterday against Brush Wellman, Inc., the company where she allegedly contracted her fatal illness.

"Brush Wellman knew of a dangerous condition and knew that dangerous condition was substantially certain to cause some injury,'' said Rick Alkire, a Cleveland attorney representing the Miller family.

Mrs. Miller was exposed to toxic beryllium dust while working as a secretary at a former Brush beryllium plant in nearby Luckey. In an interview before her death in April, 1998, she said she never thought she was in danger. She said no one told her beryllium dust could harm her, that workers in other plants had died, or that her plant was exceeding safety limits.

Toledo Blade photo
Marilyn Miller, who died at age 68, spent her last 10 years tethered to an oxygen tank.
(Toledo Blade photo)
"If I had known that, I wouldn't have worked there,'' she said.

The Blade story, published in March and April as part of a six-day series on the hazards of beryllium, detailed Mrs. Miller's final days, and final hours.

It described how she learned in 1969 that she had beryllium disease, a progressive lung illness caused by the metal's dust, and how the illness slowly stole her ability to breathe.

She was 68 when she died and had spent her last 10 years tethered to an oxygen tank.

The wife of a Bradner dairy farmer, she used to climb up in the silo and help toss out the silage.

In her last few months, she didn't have the strength to wash herself.

"Those who did this should be held responsible,'' her widower, Jack, said yesterday.

He said he watched his wife slowly slip away. "It's probably the worst way to go, when you can't get any air."

Yet she was not the only one in the family with beryllium disease. Her youngest son, Dave, contracted the illness while working at Brush's main processing plant, near Elmore.

His mother begged him not to work there, but he didn't listen. He was diagnosed with the illness in 1983.

Jack Miller's lawsuit, a wrongful-death claim, was filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland where Brush Wellman has its headquarters. It alleges that Brush knew Mrs. Miller was being exposed to high levels of beryllium dust.

The suit states Mrs. Miller worked at the beryllium plant in Luckey from about 1949 to 1953. During that time, the plant was making beryllium for weapons for the U.S. government.

And during that time, the old U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw nuclear weapons production, had a contract with Brush that required the beryllium firm to meet certain safety standards, the suit states. Among those standards was a limit on the amount of beryllium dust that workers could be exposed to.

The suit alleges that Brush knew that its workers, including Mrs. Miller, were being exposed to beryllium dust above the safety limit.

Furthermore, the suit states that Brush knew the safety limit was not sufficient to protect workers from disease in the first place.

The suit seeks damages in excess of $25,000.

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The company is America's leading beryllium producer, with facilities in several states including the 780-worker Elmore plant.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries.

At least 10 other suits have been filed against Brush in recent months. Most allege the company knowingly exposed workers at the Elmore plant to unsafe conditions.

The Blade series detailed how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry, primarily Brush Wellman, repeatedly put production of the metal ahead of safety.

Among the findings: Over the last five decades, the government and beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to levels of beryllium dust over the safety limit.

An estimated 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including 65 current or former workers at the Elmore plant.

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