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Suits Suggest Welding Is Linked To Parkinson's

Nov 29, 2003 | The Plain Dealer

With his right hand shaking from tremors, Larry Elam went to court to prove that welding had ruined his health.

Elam said he suffered from Parkinson's disease that stemmed from years of using welding rods made and sold by major companies across the country, including Lincoln Electric Co. in Cleveland.

The companies denied the claims and said there is no link between welding and Parkinson's.

A jury awarded Elam $1 million in an Illinois court last month, marking the first time a plaintiff won a case in 10 such trials.

While Elam's lawsuit was filed in state court in Illinois, Cleveland has become the focal point of hundreds of welding cases.

A federal panel has ordered more than 100 federal lawsuits from across the country consolidated in Cleveland before U.S. District Judge Kate O'Malley to simplify legal issues, and attorneys expect more to be added.

On Tuesday, proceedings began to determine whether some of the cases should be sent back to state courts or remain before O'Malley.

The welders say workers suffered neurological damage from welding-rod fumes that contain manganese, which stabilizes and hardens the weld. In documents, the attorneys say the fumes can lead to brain damage.

"The industry has known since at least 1932 that welding could lead to manganese overexposure, and that welders needed effective protection from fumes," the attorneys said in legal briefs. "But, to this day, the industry has shunned its obligation to fully and adequately warn of welding fumes' dangers and to provide the necessary protection."

Attorney are demanding additional safeguards for welders, such as ventilation and warnings. If successful, the attorneys could seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

There are more than 500,000 welders nationwide; about 1 percent are involved in the federal lawsuits before O'Malley.

Lincoln Electric on St. Clair Avenue is the global leader in design and development of arc- welding rods. In its third-quarter report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it has been involved in welding-rod suits since 1995, with a majority of them dismissed.

"The company believes resolu tion of these claims and proceedings, individually or in the aggregate, will not have a material adverse impact upon [its] consolidated financial statements," the report said.

But in a recent report to prospective clients, McDonald Investments Inc. analyst Walter Liptak wrote: "We believe that the manganese [litigation] has been an overhang in Lincoln Electric Co. for several years. With the [Illinois] unfavorable decision, we expect the number of claims to rise, increasing the risk for a larger contingent liability."

An attorney who defends Lincoln and 22 other makers and sellers of the rods, denied the allegations. He said only a person who is dramatically overexposed to manganese will suffer some neurological disorders, but those circumstances are rare and the symptoms are specific.

For example, he cited those who have worked in manganese mining operations. Welders doing a normal amount of work, he said, fall far short of those levels.

In Elam's case, a jury in Edwardsville, Ill., about 20 miles from St. Louis, ruled that welding-rod manufacturers are responsible for failing to warn him about potential health problems.

Elam, 65, of Collinsville, Ill., developed symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease after working for years at Union Electric in Missouri, where he welded and worked near welders, said his attorney.

During the trial, Elam's attorney presented a study published in 2001 in the journal Neurology that suggests welding "acts as an accelerant to cause Parkinson's disease."

But others say such a cause- and-effect study does not exist.

"As far as I know, there's no link between welding and Parkinson's," said Andrew Cullinson, editor of the American Welding Society's Welding Journal. "But there are a lot of studies going on."

Lincoln Electric plans to appeal the Illinois verdict and believes it will prevail on the merits, according to its report to the SEC.

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