Disorder in the Court

On Top of Everything Else, Sick Boeing Workers Face Judicial Hurdles

by Eric Nelson
The Free Press

Just as the medical system has not caught up to the realities of chemical exposure in the workplace, neither has the legal establishment.
Washington, like many other states, has laws that limit a worker's ability to sue an employer for damages. Much of the debate hinges on proving ill health due to exposure in the workplace (thus the significance of psychological explanations), and on rigid definitions of intent, or whether or not the employer actually intended for workers to get sick.
In effect, self-insured Washington employers have "no-fault" insurance; an employer won't be held liable unless a worker can prove that he or she was intentionally injured. Because this is difficult to do, many employment lawyers are giving up on chemical exposure cases.
"It's a restrictive view and it compromises the worker's ability to present claims in court," said Jim Hailey, an attorney for some Auburn workers.
According to attorney Matt Sweeting, who has stopped handling many chemical sensitivity cases because of the costs to his practice, the plaintiff also must show that the employer intended to hurt a specific worker.
Sweeting drew an analogy. "It's not enough to prove that the employer fired a gun into a crowd, but you must also prove that the employer actually meant to hit the (injured) person."
In the Auburn case, Boeing claims it wasn't proven that the phenol formaldehyde resins made workers sick. And if they did fall ill, the company didn't do it on purpose.
However, "Our complaint alleged that Boeing knew all along that people were getting sick. Despite this knowledge, Boeing continued to make the workers use the toxic material."
A review of several cases shows the erratic nature of employment injury claims:

Attorneys note that is it still cost effective for employers to battle this cases in court. Paying for a disability in which a person can no longer work, could cost upwards of $150,000.

Given the financial destitution and ill health of many chemically injured workers, attorneys are now selecting their cases carefully. Matt Sweeting hopes to establish a non-profit organization, the Chemical Injury Research Foundation, to continue his involvement with chemically injured people.

Related Stories/Resources:
Main Story: "It's All In Your Head"
Suicide Solution - One Woman's Way Out
Disunity Among the Machinists
The MCS Debate: A Medical Streetfight

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Contents on this page were published in the February/March, 1994 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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