Jurors in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio on June 27 returned a verdict in favor of welding product makers Lincoln Electric Co., Hobart Brothers Co., ESAB Group Inc. and TDY Industries Inc., marking the 11th time in 12 such cases that jurors have ruled in favor of the welding industry.
Former welder Ernesto Solis of Corpus Christi, Texas, asserts in his lawsuit (Ernesto Solis v. Lincoln Electric Co. et. al.) that the welding rod manufacturers did not adequately warn users of the health hazards of inhaling manganese particles generated by welding activities.
Solis, 57, contends he developed manganese-induced Parkinsonism from his 28 years as a welder at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. A spokesperson for Solis' legal team said Solis is in the beginning stages of the disease and suffers from "a variety of symptoms," most visible of which are tremors in his right arm and right hand.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley instructed jurors in the case to determine whether one or more of the four welding rod manufacturers "distributed a product that had a 'marketing defect' due to inadequate warnings or instructions.'"
The jurors, after 5 days of deliberations, answered "no" for all four defendants.
A statement issued by the defendants' legal team calls the jury verdict "another significant industry victory."
"We are extremely pleased that this Cleveland jury has joined the overwhelming majority of juries around the country that have already heard and rejected similar claims," said John Beisner, an attorney with the defense team. "The defense verdict in this case confirms, yet again, that these cases are without merit."
Attorney Eric Wetzel, a spokesperson for Solis' legal team, told Occupationalhazards.com that Solis' lawyers are considering an appeal.
Solis' Legal Team Remains Confident
Solis' lawsuit is one of several thousand welding rod cases from around the country that have been consolidated in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, in what is called a multidistrict litigation, or MDL.
At the end of May, there were approximately 4,600 such welding rod cases in the Cleveland-based court, a court official told Occupationalhazards.com. Solis' lawsuit was the first in the MDL to go to trial.
Despite the jury verdict, Solis' attorneys contend that "his defeat will prove to be a victory for the thousands of other American welders who have filed similar lawsuits," according to a statement issued by Solis' legal team.
"First of all, we believe that this trial has firmly established the very real danger of manganese-laced welding fumes," said Solis attorney Drew Ranier. "Even the CEO of the Lincoln Electric Co., one of the world's leading manufacturers of welding supplies, was forced under cross-examination to admit to this hazard."
Ranier added that a development late in the trial could benefit future welding rod cases: a court order for the defendants to produce thousands of pages of "fresh evidence."
"We believe that these new documents clearly show the danger posed by welding fumes and, in addition, a long-standing corporate cover-up designed to suppress this information," Ranier said.
Solis' lawyers estimate that 10,000 welders nationwide have filed similar personal injury suits against welding rod makers and their trade associations. Defense attorney Beisner, however, charges that in recent months thousands of those cases have been dismissed, and that 40 percent of the plaintiffs in those cases were never diagnosed with any neurological condition.
"[This] verdict is just another indication that the plaintiffs' claims are meritless," Beisner said.
Is It or Isn't It Hazardous?
Had the jury in the Solis case determined that the four defendants indeed sold products with a "marketing defect" by virtue of their failure to warn users of the health hazards of welding, the jurors' next step would have been to determine whether welding fumes caused Solis to become ill. That is the million-dollar question.
The welding industry insists that studies do not demonstrate that mild steel welding causes Parkinson's disease, manganism or Parkinson's-like disorders. (Manganese, a naturally occurring element, is an essential component of welding rods and, the industry asserts, is necessary to create an effective weld.)
OSHA's permissible exposure limit (PEL) for manganese fumes for general industry, construction and maritime is 5 milligrams of manganese per cubic meter of air (5 mg/m3). An OSHA spokesperson said the PEL for manganese fumes dates back to 1971.
For manganese compounds and manganese fumes, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a recommended exposure limit of 1 mg/m3 as a time-weighted average (TWA) concentration for up to a 10-hour workday during a 40-hour workweek.
NIOSH considers exposures of 500 milligrams of manganese per cubic meter of air as "immediately dangerous to life or health," with potential health effects and symptoms including Parkinson's disease (which includes symptoms such as tremors and speech disturbances, according to the agency), insomnia, headache, dry throat, low-back pain, vomiting, kidney damage and bronchitis.
Solis' lawsuit does not mention whether he may have been exposed to dangerous levels of manganese particles in the context of the PELs established by OSHA and NIOSH, but Wetzel believes "it's a safe bet that Mr. Solis was exposed to a dangerous levels of manganese fumes at least once and perhaps many times."
"He was working in tight areas, areas of low ventilation, and that could have easily exacerbated the exposures that he experienced," Wetzel said.
An official with the U.S. District Court in Cleveland told Occupationalhazards.com the next welding rod case in the MDL is scheduled to begin Oct. 30.