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Jury gets beryllium case; could affect other disease lawsuits

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

A six-person Jefferson County jury began deliberating Friday in a case that could help determine the future of dozens of beryllium-disease lawsuits from workers at Rocky Flats and other companies across the nation.

Lawyers for those suffering from the disease told the jurors that beryllium should have contained this warning: "Do not use this product without using a glove box, or a space suit."

Brush Wellman Inc. of Cleveland, the last remaining beryllium producer, should be held liable for allegedly causing chronic beryllium disease in 32 people who worked for the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant or Coors Porcelain, the attorneys said.

While only the first four workers and their spouses are covered under the case being decided, the results will help determine liability for the remaining 47 plaintiffs and are expected to influence another 75 pending beryllium-disease lawsuits against Brush Wellman nationwide.

Brush Wellman attorney Sydney McDole argued that the company put warning labels on all its beryllium products but Rocky Flats clerks removed them.

As a result, workers who ground, polished and molded beryllium at Rocky Flats had no idea that 1 to 5 percent of those who breathed in the metallic element would contract a wasting lung disease.

Plaintiffs' attorney Allen Stewart said Brush Wellman's warnings were defective because they gave no hint how dangerous even an infinitesimal amount of beryllium could be.

The labels didn't say, "the most deadly element known to mankind," Stewart told the jury. "They didn't say, 'The dust you can't see can kill you. The fumes you can't smell can kill you.' "

For 50 years, Brush Wellman told the public that no one would come down with chronic beryllium disease if the factory kept beryllium dust to 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That's the equivalent of a ground-up pencil tip scattered across a football field of air six feet high.

In fact, Brush Wellman and federal officials knew in the 1940s that even less than that could kill, Stewart said. He claims the company and government officials conspired to keep the information secret so beryllium needed to make nuclear weapons would be available and Brush Wellman's private sector customers would not be scared away.

McDole argued that Rocky Flats and its operators, Rockwell International and Dow Chemical, were responsible for the workers' illness because they failed to provide enough ventilation, training and respirators.

"We believe Dow should be here, we believe Rockwell should be here -- not us," she said.

Stewart said Rocky Flats would have used glove boxes to handle beryllium if Brush Wellman had told them to do so, or if it had published all it knew.

The plaintiffs asked the jury to find Brush Wellman 80 percent liable and its former competitor, Berylco, 20 percent liable. Berylco is out of business, so its share would fall on Brush Wellman if the jury agrees there was a conspiracy, McDole said.

She asked the jury to solely blame Rocky Flats operators. The jury was not told that would mean plaintiffs would receive no payment becase Rocky Flats companies are paying workmen's compensation to the victims, and do not have to pay further damages.

June 23, 2001

 
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