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Flats workers lose suit

By Stacie Oulton
Denver Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 27, 2001 - GOLDEN - Rocky Flats workers and the companies that ran the former nuclear-weapons plant are to blame for the workers' debilitating lung disease, a Jefferson County jury found Tuesday in a nationally prominent lawsuit.

The Denver Post
The jury found that Brush Wellman Inc., which supplied beryllium to the plant, was not liable for the workers' illness and dismissed claims of a conspiracy between the federal government and Brush Wellman. The dust from the strong and lightweight metal can cause chronic beryllium disease, which can be fatal.

The verdict left the wives of the Rocky Flats workers involved in the case in tears, and they and their husbands left the courthouse without commenting. Four workers and their wives had sued Brush, saying the company, with the help of the federal government, covered up information about beryllium's hazards.

Others across the country who have the same lung disease were shocked by the verdict, news of which spread as quickly as e-mails could be sent.

"That's awful news. That's terrible news. I'm stunned," said David Norgard, a Michigan resident who also is suing Brush Wellman. "Maybe it was the Republican county. ... They should have got it (moved to) Boulder County."

Mike Matulin, a Tucson resident also suing Brush, said the verdict is another sign the government is "hand-in-hand" with the company, helping to provide the best resources to fight the beryllium suits.

The lawyers for the workers said they will press on with their other cases, including the suits of 47 other Rocky Flats and Coors Brewery workers and their spouses who have sued Brush in Jefferson County.

"I do believe that won't be the prevailing view," Al Stewart, the workers' attorney, said of Tuesday's verdict.

Stewart said his clients "were sad, but they were proud they were here."

Brush Wellman's attorney, Jeffery Ubersax, said the jury simply saw the case for what it was.

"We are very grateful to the jury for its close attention to the facts. Their verdict confirms what we've been saying, namely that Brush Wellman has always provided adequate warnings," Ubersax said. "There was no conspiracy to hide anything from Brush Wellman's customers or users of its products."

A company statement said the verdict "exonerates" Brush of the "totally unsupported "conspiracy' theory."

Both sides downplayed any impact the Colorado case would have on others around the country. Brush, an Ohio company with plants in Arizona and Utah, faces more than 70 lawsuits involving nearly 200 plaintiffs. The next suit is to go to trial Aug. 6 in Knoxville, Tenn., involving workers at the nuclear weapons plant there.

"It's one trial. It means the other plaintiffs will have their day in court," Stewart said.

Stewart spent nearly two weeks laying out hundreds of pages of recently declassified federal documents and Brush's internal records that talked about needing to keep beryllium flowing to the defense industry regardless of the hazards to workers.

But Brush's attorney countered with extensive evidence that conditions at Rocky Flats allowed workers to be exposed hundreds of times to high levels of beryllium dust. Dow Chemical Co. and Rockwell International, which ran the plant for the government, also failed to install proper ventilation and air sampling, despite repeated directions from the government to do so, he said.

"We just took the evidence that we had and did what we thought was right," said Kim Hornecker, foreman for the six-member jury, which deliberated for about 24 hours over three days.

Although the jury concluded that Brush had warned of the metal's hazards, it still assigned the company 9 percent of the liability for the workers' illness. But the 9 percent figure is meaningless and viewed as a "minor inconsistency" in the jury's verdict, said Jefferson County District Court Judge Frank Plaut.

Despite the 9 percent figure, the workers will get no money from Brush, Stewart said.

The jury found that the workers were 10 percent to 20 percent to blame for their sickness, based on the fact that workers assumed a risk by working at Rocky Flats, Stewart said.

Most of the remaining liability lay with Dow and Rockwell for being negligent in providing a safe workplace, the jury said. But the workers can't sue Dow and Rockwell over the issue, Stewart said.

Some of the four workers already have received workers' compensation from the two companies for their illness. They also have filed administrative claims with the federal government for similar compensation, Stewart said.

The workers should be able to receive up to $150,000 each from the federal government as well as medical coverage for their illness under federal legislation passed last year, Stewart said. That legislation is intended to compensate nuclear-weapons workers who were exposed to several hazards.

Denver Post correspondent Keith Coffman contributed to this report.


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