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Judge throws out workers' suit against beryllium companies

The Associated Press
9/7/01 12:12 PM

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A federal judge has thrown out claims by sick workers that Brush Wellman Inc. of Cleveland and other makers and distributors of beryllium used in nuclear weapons production should have warned them about the metal's health hazards.

U.S. District Judge James Jarvis said that responsibility rested on the federal government and its contractors, Union Carbide Corp. and later Martin-Marietta Energy Systems Inc., who employed the workers at the Department of Energy's Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

"Because the government and its contractors were the only parties in a position to warn the plaintiffs and protect them from the dangers of beryllium, the defendants had no duty to warn the plaintiffs," Jarvis wrote.

"The duty was assumed by the United States and its contractors."

The judge noted that Congress recently enacted a compensation plan entitling nuclear weapons plant workers suffering from beryllium-related illnesses to lump sum payments of $150,000 and medical benefits.

Jarvis issued a 42-page summary judgment Tuesday in favor of Brush Wellman; NGK Metal Corp. of Reading, Pa.; Cabot Corp. of Boston and Ceradyne Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif.

"We are extremely pleased that the district court granted this motion," Brush Wellman said in a statement. "The court can be commended for being thorough and reasoned in evaluating Brush Wellman's position that it was not responsible for the health and safety of another company's employees."

Y-12 workers Troy Murphy Morgan, Corky Dean McCarter, Richard Emory Myers and Kathleen Beatty sued in 1994 claiming they contracted a debilitating respiratory illness because of their exposure to beryllium dust and fumes.

Steve Jensen, one of the workers' lawyers, said an appeal was being considered of Jarvis' ruling.

Jarvis has nine other beryllium lawsuits before him, involving workers both from Y-12 and the K-25 former uranium enrichment site in Oak Ridge.

"I don't see how those claims would not be disposed of the same way," Cabot Corp. attorney John Traficonte said.

The plaintiffs claimed the companies not only failed tell them about the risks of beryllium but also engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to keep the dangers of beryllium exposure secret.

Brush Wellman noted similar claims were made in lawsuit it won in June in Jefferson County, Colo. That jury rejected the conspiracy theory and found the company adequately warned contractors at the Department of Energy's Rocky Flats facility of the need to protect beryllium workers.

Beryllium is used in a variety of electronic and consumer products, from calculators to personal computers. But its light weight, high tensile strength and ability to slow neutrons make it particularly useful in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and reactor parts.

Exposure to beryllium dust may lead to chronic beryllium disease, which causes a painful scarring of the lung tissue. Even family members can develop the disease from exposure to beryllium on a worker's clothing.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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