BRAIN-CANCER LAWSUIT CONSOLIDATION UNDER FIRE

Tagged:  

WASHINGTON--A legal brawl has erupted over cellular industry efforts to steer nearly all health-related lawsuits to Baltimore federal judge Catherine Blake, who is on the verge of making a ruling that could either sink all the suits in one fell swoop or possibly subject mobile-phone firms to years of costly litigation.

Late last month, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation sent another group of mobile-phone-cancer lawsuits to Blake in response to a request by wireless industry lawyers.

"It is a matter of efficiency and judicial economy," said Curtis Renner, a lawyer representing SBC Communications Inc.

Last year, the MDL transferred five class-action suits--which seek to force mobile-phone operators to supply consumers with hands-free headsets--to Blake. In June, Blake denied the plaintiffs' request to remand the headset cases back to state courts.

All told, Blake now oversees 10 brain cancer suits and five-class action headset suits. The only brain-cancer suit not controlled by Blake is pending in a Nevada state court. The lawsuits to varying degrees name as defendants the nation's top wireless carriers and manufacturers as well as top trade associations and industry standard-setting bodies.

Industry lawyers appear willing to roll the dice with Blake in hopes she will make all the health suits disappear if she decides to block from going to trial an $800,000 cancer lawsuit filed two years ago by Baltimore neurologist Christopher Newman. It could end up being a brilliant legal strategy if Blake rules in industry's favor.

But the tack could backfire badly if Blake agrees to let the Newman case go forward, a situation that would improve the chance of success for existing suits and possibly open the floodgates to more litigation.

Still, industry lawyers, having already secured a favorable Blake ruling on jurisdiction in the headset litigation, stand ready to bet the house on a judge they view as intelligent, thorough, fair and--they hope--in agreement with their legal arguments.

Of all the challenges faced today by the mobile-phone industry--heavy debt and falling stock prices to name just a couple--none is as potentially threatening as the unsettled health issue.

Six of the lawsuits sent by the MDL to Blake last month were filed by individuals who allege mobile-phone use caused their brain cancers. Plaintiffs' lawyers are trying to get the six cases moved back to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Before prompting the MDL to send the various cases to Blake in Baltimore, industry lawyers had the six cases moved to D.C. federal court.

Lawyers for the six cancer victims have petitioned the MDL for a hearing to challenge the consolidation of cases in Blake's court.

"The D.C. defendants' tactics of Stonewalling and delay are extremely prejudicial to the D.C. plaintiffs, who suffer from terminal illnesses related to their injuries and simply cannot afford any more delays," said Mayer Morganroth, one of the lawyers representing the six people, in an Aug. 16 filing with the MDL.

"Indeed," added Morganroth, "the effect of such consolidation would essentially foreclose any possibility of the D.C. plaintiffs' having their day in court while still alive."

On Aug. 15, industry lawyers petitioned Blake to dismiss all five classaction headset cases and a cancer lawsuit filed by California's Gibb Brower. Industry's motion will be briefed in coming weeks and months. Blake has scheduled oral argument for Brower on Sept. 16 and for the headset cases on Nov. 1.

Further fueling the controversy, which caught fire in the early 1990s, are two newly published studies with vastly different findings on health implications of mobile-phone use and a July letter by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA letter suggests the existing radiation safety standard for mobile phones may be insufficient because it does not protect against nonthermal effects of wireless handsets.

One study by Dr. Lennart Hardell, a Swedish epidemiologist and the key expert witness for Newman, found an increased risk of brain tumors on the side of the head used by subscribers to make and receive cellular telephone calls. The research paper is published in the August issue of the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Industry lawyers attacked Hardell's findings during a five-day hearing in February in Baltimore.

Another study--conducted by Australian researchers and published in the September issue of Radiation Research--failed to link long-term exposure of mobile-phone radiation to increased lymphomas in lab mice. The purpose of the experiment was determine whether findings of a 1997 Australian study--led by Dr. Michael Repacholi--could be replicated. Repacholi's study yielded a two-fold increase in lymphoma in mice exposed for 18 months to mobile-phone transmissions.

The wireless industry took exception to the EPA letter, penned by Norbert Hankin of the agency's Radiation Protection Division.

"I think Mr. Hardell's letter is at odds with previous statements by high-ranking officials at EPA, which in letters to other agencies have made clear EPA's support for the RF [radio-frequency] exposure guidelines," said Jo-Anne Basile, vice president of external and industry relations at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

Sources said the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers--a defendant in several suits and the organization responsible for developing mobile-phone radiation limits--is drafting a response to the Hankin letter.

The FCC's radiation safety standard for mobile phones has been upheld by the courts in recent years.

Basile also said CTIA is soliciting proposals for the second phase of research funded by the trade group and administered by the Food and Drug Administration. The research will deal with developing better measurement tools for epidemiology studies.

~~~~~~~~

By Jeffrey Silva

Share this with your friends