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Welder Awarded $1 Million In Jury Trial

Oct 30, 2003 | Belleville News-Democrat

Disease keeps him home, man says

Larry Elam first noticed the tremors in the late 1980s or early 1990s, while he was out for dinner with his wife.

His hand shook when he tried to take a bite.

About that time, the Collinsville resident also started feeling stiffness in his body. And his wife noticed an occasional twitch in his face.

In 1995 at age 57, Elam got the diagnosis: Parkinson's disease.

On Tuesday, a Madison County jury awarded him $1 million in what may be a foreboding verdict for makers of welding rods. Elam claimed fumes from welding caused his disease or caused him to get it at an early age.

"I'd like to think I wouldn't have gotten it at all, but we'll never know," Elam said Wednesday.

Elam was born in a farmhouse in Vandalia and grew up in that area, then joined the U.S. Air Force. After about five years of service, he moved to Collinsville, where he had relatives, and eventually ended up working at Union Electric in Missouri.

He had various jobs during his nearly 30 years at Union Electric. Sometimes he welded, and often he worked around welding.

When he began noticing the symptoms, he wasn't sure what was going on, but he knew he didn't like it.

"I told my wife if it didn't stop, I wasn't going to go out anymore," Elam said. "When your cup's shaking or your utensils are shaking, that's distracting to people. I don't like to put on a display."

Today, the 65-year-old Elam rarely goes anywhere. He'll go to the store with his wife, because there he can walk with a shopping cart instead of the cane he uses at home. His legs often feel weak.

What bothers him most is that one of his two daughters, who is deaf, has trouble reading his lips because of the twitching, and he can't play with his five grandchildren as much as he'd like.

"The grandchildren like a lot of attention," he said. "I think I've become a bit of a recluse since I've got this."

Elam's verdict, against welding-rod makers BOC Group, Hobart Brothers and Lincoln Electric, was heard around the world. Until the Elam verdict, no verdict had ever been issued in favor of a plaintiff who claimed to suffer Parkinson's because of welding fumes.

Seven similar trials have been held previously in the United States, including one in June, when another Madison County jury deliberated on Elam's case for four days without reaching a unanimous verdict. The other six trials ended with defense verdicts.

On Wednesday, the British-based BOC Group's stock fell 7.64 percent on the London Stock Exchange and about 6.7 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.

Alex Scott, a stock analyst in London for Seven Investment Management, told the Reuters news agency investors are going to be jittery about "any risk of exposure to the bottomless pit of the U.S. litigation environment."

Ed Murnane, director of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said comments like that are "really pinpointing Madison County," which has a reputation of being plaintiff-friendly.

Murnane, whose group is backed by businesses and industry, added: "It seems there is no scientific evidence to support the conclusion the jury reluctantly reached. If that is the signal that our judicial system is sending to Illinois and U.S. businesses as well as international business concerns, the situation is even worse than we think it is."

One juror has said five jurors initially favored a defense verdict, but there was some compromise. Elam's attorney, asked for a $2.3 million judgment.

Elam said he wishes no harm to the manufacturers, but he hopes the verdict results in improved safety, such as having to wear a respirator while welding.

"I'm not out for revenge," he said, adding that he hopes the verdict is a victory for "many other welders who may have the same problem."

BOC Group said it will appeal. In a statement, the company said the verdict is "inconsistent with the verdict reached by every other jury that has considered similar claims" and is "contrary to the scientific, medical and toxicological evidence."

A doctor involved in a study of welders in three Gulf Coast states testified that of 20,000 welders screened so far, about 2,500 have Parkinson's or a Parkinson's-type disease. Parkinson's disease affects about 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the U.S. population over age 50, according to most experts.

Bosslet said researchers are still studying welding and Parkinson's.

"I think the more this is looked into, the stronger these cases are going to become," he said.

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