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Hardie facing US death lawsuits

Ean Higgins
February 22, 2005 - JAMES Hardie Industries will have to appear in a Californian court to defend claims it killed two Americans who worked with asbestos the company exported to the US. The actions for wrongful death, mounted by a Californian plaintiff lawyer, will each seek several million dollars in compensation.

The workers were employed by Californian distributor Industrial Building Materials Inc, which they claim imported and installed Hardie asbestos products. Mr Kazan's firm has won a number of similar cases in the past.

The fact that Hardie's US subsidiaries are listed as defendants in one case would appear to contradict a statement by Hardie chief financial officer Russell Chenu last week that the company faced no asbestos compensation actions in the US, and that only its compensation trust, the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation, was a defendant. The suits are particularly dangerous for Hardie because, in a secret company memo obtained by The Australian, Hardie's then litigation counsel, Wayne Attrill, said Hardie's Australian asbestos subsidiary had exported asbestos products to IBMI, and could be liable.

The revelation came as Hardie shareholders, alarmed by revelations in The Australian about the company's US asbestos exposure, wiped almost $200million off its value in trading yesterday. Hardie shares plummeted 40c since Friday's close to $6.15, a fall of 6.1 per cent.

"I suspect people are more focused on asbestos issues and potential liability," said analyst Mark Ebbinghaus of UBS.

Hardie spokesman James Rickards said yesterday's sharemarket action was "a reaction to claims made by The Australian". But he said the newspaper's stories had ignored defences by Mr Chenu, who said at Hardie's quarterly results meeting last week that only a "modest" amount of asbestos product had been sent to the US in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

He also said the few lawsuits filed in the US were against the legally separate compensation trust. However, Hardie still refuses to provide figures of its asbestos exports to the US, and the claim that only the MRCF is a defendant appears to be wrong. The California Superior Court website lists James Hardie Building Products Inc, and other Hardie subsidiaries in the US, as defendants in the wrongful death case filed in July 1997 for Ronald Brown. Brown worked at IBMI from 1964 to 1976, and died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Mr Rickards yesterday had no explanation for why Hardie appeared as a defendant on the court documents.

Hardie has filed documents denying the claims that its products were responsible for Brown's death, while the MRCF has similarly filed a denial in the Henderson case. A leading consultant on international asbestos litigation, Ian Mutton, told The Australian Hardie's US subsidiaries risked being found liable if the Brown family wins the case.

"The risk is that the judge will say there's a defendant here, there's a plaintiff here whose husband died from asbestos disease, so the defendant has to pay," Mr Mutton said.

Japan firms report more asbestos deaths

July 7, 2005 - Seven Japanese companies said 51 employees who had handled asbestos had died in recent decades, adding to a mounting death toll linked to work-related exposure to the fibrous minerals.

Ten companies have now come forward to announce 294 deaths possibly caused by asbestos. Industrial equipment maker Kubota Corp first announced last week that 79 workers at its asbestos-producing plants had died over several decades.

The announcement led the Japan Asbestos Association to ask all 24 member companies to investigate past health problems. The industry group said it would publicly disclose any findings.

Chemical products maker Nippon Valqua Industries Ltd said 20 of its plant workers had likely died from mesothelioma - an asbestos-related cancer - and other illnesses attributable to inhaling asbestos microfibers.

Taiheiyo Cement Corp. said 16 employees died from similar afflictions between 1973 and 2004.

Mitsubishi Materials Kenzai Corp said one employee died of black lung disease caused by asbestos in 1993 and another of lung cancer in 2001.

Asahi Glass Co said one employee who had used protective gear containing asbestos while working at a cathode-ray tube manufacturing plant had died, but that it wasn't clear whether the death was linked to the use of the tainted clothing.

Twelve others employed at three construction materials makers - Nozawa Corp, Japan Insulation Co, and a contractor of Japan Insulation - also died of black lung. The companies said the link with asbestos hadn't been confirmed.

Asbestos refers to a number of natural minerals comprised of fibrous bundles which can be inhaled when airborne.

It was widely used in Japan as insulation and in roof tiles until the 1980s, and the government officially banned the shipment or production of asbestos only last year.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest cavity, lungs or stomach, whose only known cause is asbestos. It can often emerge decades after exposure.

Novelos' lung-cancer drug on fast track

NEWTON, Mass., Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Novelos Therapeutics said Monday its potential lung-cancer drug is on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's fast track.

The designation means the FDA will likely complete review within six months of the company's investigational treatment, NOV-002, for use in combination with first-line chemotherapy to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

NSCLC accounts for more than 80 percent of all lung-cancer cases, the firm said.

The agency's fast track is reserved for drugs that treat serious diseases for which there is an unmet medical need. In addition to quick review, fast-track status also allows Novelos to submit parts of its new drug application at an earlier point so FDA medical reviews can process the application more quickly.

The company can also rely on earlier data from its clinical studies -- called surrogate endpoints -- to demonstrate the treatment's safety and efficacy.

Novelos said it is ready to launch its phase 3 study of the lung-cancer therapy. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and 2006 will see 175,000 more people diagnosed with the disease, with more than 160,000 of those patients succumbing to the illness, said Novelos, quoting statistics from the American Cancer Society.


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