Tuesday, June 06, 2006

First trial in nationally consolidated welding cases starts

First trial in nationally consolidated welding cases starts
Jun 4, 2006 | M.R. KROPKO | AP
Ernesto G. Solis often welded as part of his maintenance work at a naval air station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Solis, 57, married and the father of four adult children, still works, but avoids welding. He believes that years of exposure to welding fumes has taken a serious toll on his health. His lawyers say his physical skills have gradually deteriorated.

Solis has become the focus of a federal court trial here that may help set a national legal precedent for thousands of other cases in which workers allege manganese exposure from welding has led to Parkinson's disease.

Solis' case would be the first welding fume case to go to trial among the thousands that were consolidated in U.S. District Court in Cleveland in 2003. Judge Kathleen M. O'Malley asked lawyers to be ready with opening statements Monday, and the trial could last about three weeks.

Defendants in the case are Lincoln Electric Holdings Inc., Hobart Bros. Co., TDY Industries Inc. and the ESAB Group.

"We don't believe that welding is responsible for Mr. Solis' alleged ailments," said Brandy Bergman, a spokeswoman in New York for lawyers representing welding industry defendants. "We are confident that this Cleveland jury will join the overwhelming majority of other juries around the country that have already heard and rejected similar claims."

Other welding fume cases were tried in state courts and in federal courts before the 2003 consolidation. There are about 40 percent fewer such cases pending than there were a year ago, Bergman said.

Solis' lawsuit began four years ago in Texas and contends that from 1973 to 2001 he was exposed to toxic manganese fumes from welding. The lawsuit alleges that manganese in more than trace amounts can damage the human nervous system and limit a person's ability to think, talk and move.

To coordinate the pretrial process of thousands of similar cases, they were consolidated in O'Malley's court in Cleveland, a process known as an MDL, or multidistrict litigation. There are at least 3,800 consolidated cases pending. Some of those may end up in other courts, after the first few are tried to give attorneys guidance on which arguments will succeed and which won't.

Drew Ranier, one of a team of lawyers representing Solis, said Friday before jury selection began that welding fumes are an ongoing public health concern among workers in construction and manufacturing.

"The overall picture is that there are thousands of welders being exposed to welding fumes, and there will be more cases until this is stopped," Ranier said.

The Solis lawsuit asks a jury to determine an appropriate award of damages, but does not specify an amount.

In September, another case nearly became the first to go to trial before O'Malley, but was settled for at least $1 million shortly before jury selection.

Charles Ruth, of Lucedale, Miss., had been a welder at Ingalls Shipyard, in Pascagoula, Miss., and began having various physical problems. His lawyers said he suffered shakes, balance and speech problems.

Because of the settlement, a jury did not decide whether welding fumes could be linked to Ruth's problems