A federal appeals court ruling yesterday means that after a 10-year battle - during which time at least 31 plaintiffs have died - former Kelly-Springfield tire workers will get a chance to go to court to prove their health was damaged by hazardous chemicals used at the company's Cumberland factory.
The ruling comes after plaintiff's attorney G. Macy Nelson argued June 7 before the appellate court in Richmond, Va., that his clients were entitled to a jury trial in the matter.
"Because we conclude that the [U.S. District Court in Baltimore] should reconsider whether the plaintiffs are entitled to limited discovery, we vacate the district court's order and remand the case to that court for further proceedings," said the opinion of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Western Maryland plant closed in 1987. Over the past decade, 66 Kelly-Springfield employees have filed suit in federal court in Baltimore, contending that chemicals used there made them ill. The lawsuits languished for years before being dismissed by a U.S. district judge in 1997. They were reinstated on appeal, but another federal judge threw them out again last year, ruling there was insufficient evidence the chemicals used at the factory caused the illnesses, which range from cancer to impaired breathing to heart disease.
Now, it seems, the workers will have their day in court.
"There will be a trial," Nelson said. "The bottom line is it's a major victory for the workers."
However, the appellate court did not guarantee a trial but instead said, in part: "We believe that the district court will be in a position to better assess whether summary judgment is appropriate."
Nelson said the ruling is important because it means Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Kelly-Springfield's corporate parent, must disclose facts it has tried for years to keep hidden." Goodyear possesses, for example, epidemiological data for decades of workers who were exposed to the same chemicals my clients were exposed to," Nelson said.
"Goodyear has mortality studies, all of which have not been produced. Goodyear has health histories of workers who were exposed to the same chemicals, thousands of them, going back to the 1930s, that was never produced," Nelson continued.
Joseph C. Wich Jr., one of three attorneys representing Goodyear, said he could not comment because he had not yet seen the ruling.
Neither have former Kelly workers LeRoy Gross or Jacob Loar, but the men got excited when notified by a reporter that it appears their case will go to trial. "It's a big breakthrough," said Gross, 61, a former pipe fitter who learned in 1993 that he has lymphoma. "The biggest problem was Goodyear would never disclose what chemicals they used in the plant. They claim it's a trade secret. It's been denied so many times I'd almost given up on it."
Gross, who has lived in Cumberland all of his life, said he's feeling OK these days, though he is often tired. He is scheduled to return to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va., next month for a checkup "to see how much my lymphoma has advanced."
A former colleague of Gross', Loar, 78, said he often experiences shortness of breath. He said of the ruling: "That's really good. That's really wonderful."
Loar, who worked at Kelly for 21 years and lives in Midlothian, said he's glad Nelson's efforts have finally paid off.
"That's what we've been waiting on for nine years," he said. "That's what Nelson and them have been waiting on, for this to go to a jury trial so 12 people can decide the case."