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U.S. lawsuits over welding fumes face test in Ohio

August 15, 2005

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. lawsuits over the health effects
of welding fumes, dubbed “the next asbestos” by plaintiffs, are
set for a big test this month in an Ohio court case that may
determine whether manufacturing companies face billions in
claims.

Lawyers for thousands of welders, and others exposed to
welding fumes, have alleged that manganese fumes, released
during welding, cause severe damage to the central nervous
system, including Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s-like
symptoms, a link defendants dispute.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers say 10,000 welding fume cases have
been filed and another 50,000 may follow, potentially costing
industrial companies billions of dollars.

The total number of current and former welders in the
United States is estimated at 500,000.

Defendants include Cleveland-based welding products maker
Lincoln Electric, Illinois Tool Works, and A.O. Smith, as well
as Britain’s BOC Group Plc. and Esab, a unit of British
engineer Charter.

Also targeted are users of welding products, including
General Electric Co. and construction equipment maker
Caterpillar Inc..

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the companies knew of the
health dangers since the 1930s but suppressed evidence. They
draw a parallel with asbestos lawsuits, which cost companies
billions of dollars in claims and put several out of business.

But analysts say industrial companies have a strong record
of defending themselves and the financial impact is likely to
be limited.

“Final resolution remains distant and the record of cases
to date, though a small sample, is favorable,” wrote analyst
Holden Lewis of BB&T Capital Markets in a note to clients.

Analyst Godfrey Birckhead of SBK-Brooks, who follows
Lincoln Electric, said on Monday, “the odds that they would
lose a major case are very very slim.”

A trial set to start August 29 in Cleveland pits a former
Mississippi welder, Charles Ruth, against companies whose
products allegedly caused severe neurological damage.

The federal judge in the case ruled this month the
plaintiffs can present evidence of a link between welding fumes
and Parkinson’s disease. Thousands of cases have been
consolidated in the federal judge’s jurisdiction.

“It’s extremely important for the defendants,” said Drew
Ranier, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers. “It’s in the heart of
their own area. If they lose this case it will have a profound
impact on the litigation, and if they win, there are many more
to follow.”

Ranier pointed to a recent Illinois case, now under appeal,
in which a welder was awarded $1 million in damages.

“If there are 50,000 cases like that, then that’s what the
landscape looks like,” Ranier said.

Lawyers for the welding industry argue there is no direct
link between welding fumes and neurological disorders, pointing
to a study of Danish welders published in a medical journal in
May.

“We believe science is on our side,” said John Beisner, a
lawyer for the defendants, who said the industry has won nine
of ten cases that have gone to trial. “I think it’s not a
medical epidemic, it’s a legal epidemic.”

Beisner said 30 percent of claimants are “repeat litigants”
who also sued in asbestos cases. Only a minority of plaintiffs
sought medical attention, he added, while the bulk joined the
suits after answering ads from law firms.




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