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Asbestos plaintiffs ordered to prove residence

Asbestos suit litigants must show they live, or were hurt in Miss.

By Jerry Mitchell

December 30, 2004 - Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard has scheduled a 10 a.m. Jan. 24 hearing in Fayette, requiring lawyers to show why out-of-state plaintiffs in asbestos lawsuits shouldn't be dismissed.

Three Mississippi judges have ordered more than 13,000 asbestos plaintiffs to prove they either live in Mississippi or were injured here — or their claims will be dismissed.

Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard has given about 8,000 plaintiffs 20 days to say where they live and where they were exposed to asbestos. In cases that involve Mississippi companies, the county of each company must be listed. More than 10,000 plaintiffs overall have sued in Jefferson, Copiah and Claiborne counties, alleging injuries from asbestos.

Circuit Judge Jannie Lewis has set a 60-day deadline for about 4,000 plaintiffs to show why they have standing to sue in Holmes, Humphreys or Yazoo counties. Those exposed out of state will be dismissed, and the claims of those allegedly exposed in other counties will be transferred to those districts.
Circuit Judge Winston Kidd has delivered a similar ruling in Hinds County, involving about 1,300 plaintiffs and giving them a 225-day deadline.

The judges' rulings come after a shift by the state Supreme Court, which since February has ruled that out-of-state plaintiffs must be dismissed from asbestos and similar litigation and that plaintiffs in the same county must have separate trials.

A Jackson defense lawyer said of the three judges' decisions: "The judges' rulings relating to out-of-state plaintiffs not only follows the law, but makes common sense. Mississippi should not be a dumping ground for claims that have no connection to this state."

The Starkville lawyer who represents 5,864 plaintiffs, all but of whom 1,360 are from other states — emphasized that these rulings are not the final hearings.

"There are a lot of issues involved in this," he said. "Each plaintiff may have different causes of action. There are so many scenarios."

A spokesperson who is with a law firm in Jackson and represents more than 75 defendants, said she conservatively estimates about half of the more than 13,000 plaintiffs affected are from out of state.

She predicted more rulings will follow. "We expect them to continue to enter them in other cases, but it's a long and tedious process," she said.

Circuit Judge Billy Landrum has not ruled on asbestos cases in Jones County involving about 15,000 plaintiffs.

In October, more than 120 people, mostly lawyers, packed Pickard's 70-seat courtroom. One of the few plaintiffs there, 53-year-old Eugene Stewart from nearby Franklin County, said he continues to suffer problems with his lungs and breathing due to years of exposure to asbestos but is still waiting for his day in court, now five years later.

Asbestos is a white, flaky substance routinely used a half century ago for insulation and in shipbuilding. It has been known to cause lung cancer and a lung-scarring disease called asbestosis.

Defendant companies have asked Mississippi judges to dismiss the asbestos lawsuits, citing recent court cases that have thrown out "shotgun" complaints. (A shotgun complaint often involves hundreds of plaintiffs and is so vague in describing circumstances and injuries that defendants find the allegations difficult or impossible to respond to.)

Croft said that's been one of the major problems with this mass litigation: "You'd certainly hate to be sued by thousands of people and not know why."

But Montgomery and other plaintiffs' lawyers have defended their cases as giving plenty of specifics to the defendants.

Croft said these rulings by judges will help those truly injured. "It will give Mississippi citizens better access to Mississippi courts," she said.

Asbestos lawsuits may not be the only litigation affected by the high court's decisions. Thousands — some of them from out of state — have filed litigation in Mississippi involving allegations of injuries from silica.

Repeated inhalation of silica dust can scar lungs, making it difficult for the lungs to extract oxygen from the air. This incurable disease known as silicosis — which may take decades to appear — is found in jobs such as mining, metal foundries, blasting and glass making.

Croft expects Mississippi judges to make similar rulings in ongoing silica cases: "They've had the same problems with joining multiple plaintiffs, and they're before the same judges."

EPA Needs Questionnaires from Residents Living Near Dearborn W.R.Grace Asbestos Site

Contact: William Omohundro, 312-353-8254, Mick Hans, 312-353-5050, Dave Novak, 312-886-7478, all of the Environmental Protection Agency Region 5

CHICAGO, April 11 /U.S. Newswire/ -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 said equipment and more personnel are on site today to begin cleanup of the former W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing plant at 14300 Henn St. in Dearborn, Mich. Safety precautions such as water spray and other engineering controls will be used to reduce dust during the work.

Since sampling of nearby residential areas will begin Monday, April 18, EPA is urging owners of residential properties who want EPA to visually inspect their yards to return their white sheet questionnaires no later than Friday, April 15, to the EPA trailers at the Henn Street plant.

The cleanup will address asbestos-containing waste material from W.R. Grace's production of vermiculite that has been used, among other things, as an ingredient of potting soil. EPA has identified contamination at the former Grace plant (now owned by another business) and is investigating the possibility that some of the material may be in nearby yards or was used as fill in driveways. Grace operated at the Henn Street location from the early 1950s until 1989.

Information about the cleanup is available for review at Henry Ford Community College's Eshleman Library reference section, 5101 Evergreen Road. Materials in both English and Arabic are also available at the ACCESS Medical Center, 6450 Maple St.

Vermiculite is a natural occurring mineral compound composed of shiny flakes. Most vermiculite in the United States came from a mine near Libby, Mont., that also had a natural deposit of asbestos. Asbestos can cause health problems when breathed into the lungs and over time may result in lung diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

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