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Philips Lighting workers learn about lawsuit

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

FAIRMONT -- With Erin Brockovich looming larger than life on a movie screen, past and present Philips Lighting workers got a taste of what it will be like working with famous attorneys Monday.

An environmental law activist with a penchant for plunging necklines and plain speech, the via-video Brockovich told workers she was proud of their fight against Philips and its predecessors.

"You have been working in dangerous conditions and exposed to dangerous chemicals," she said. "You now need to get the appropriate medical care."

Masry & Vititoe of Westlake Village, Calif., for which Brockovich works as an investigator, announced last week it will file a lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court against Philips and its corporate predecessors.

It contends the lamp/light-bulb plant did not protect workers from known toxins, including mercury.

The suit will name hundreds of clients individually and seek annual medical testing and monetary damages for work-related illnesses.

It includes Philips, Viacom and Westinghouse employees/retirees.

Recently deceased workers and family members may also be included, firm officials said.

Firm partner Ed Masry told about 400 potential cli-ents their case is one of seven the firm has selected from a pool of 3,000 in the last 18 months.

He said it was picked because it is winnable.

"We do cases on a contingency basis," said Masry, who, like Brockovich, was dramatized in a Julia Roberts movie released in 2000. "The quickest way to go broke is to take a case where you're going to get your butt kicked."

A similar case has already seen success. In the late 1990s, a lone Philips employee won a settlement that provided money for future medical testing.

Masry suggested lawsuit participants watch the "Erin Brockovich" movie to get a feel for what future months will be like. The film featured a successful case against a California-based utility company that hid the fact it had contaminated town water with a carcinogen.

"The analogy here is the company that you worked at ... knew, but for whatever reason -- and I can almost guarantee you it was the bottom line -- they didn't bother to tell you," Masry said.

The current effort also has a bit of the Brockovich angle to it, he noted.

The lawsuit began when worker Sue Fullen mentioned Philips to Joe Simoni, a Morgantown community activist who was working with asbestos litigation at West Virginia University.

Already, scores of employees and retirees have filled out a 45-page questionnaire discussing their work and health. In Exponent Telegram interviews, workers said they want justice and information.

One Barrackville woman attributes her colon cancer to her 30-year career. She checks the obituaries daily to keep up with fallen co-workers.

"There are lots of them," she said.

Philips media spokesmen are located at corporate headquarters in the Netherlands and have not been available for comment on lawsuit stories.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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