Judge grants four defendant summary judgments in benzene suit, tells plaintiff to find a new lawyer

David Yates May 26, 2009, 8:33am


Nearly two years ago, the Record reported on an Arizona man who crossed two state lines to file a benzene lawsuit here in Jefferson County.

Following 21 months of litigation, 58th District Judge Bob Wortham granted summary judgments for four defendants entangled in Bobby Hall's lawsuit, dismissing the plaintiff's claims for lack of causation.

However, Judge Wortham told Hall if he was so inclined to file a motion for a new trial in the next 30 days, he "had the power" to grant the request.

Hall's suit was originally filed through Houston attorney Justin Shrader. However, court documents show Hall and Shrader parted ways over a "difference of opinion" seven months ago, which left the plaintiff without legal representation at the hearing.

Lacking legal expertise, Hall was unable to produce any evidence at the hearing linking his cancer to dioxin, a derivate of the chemical benzene.

According to The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, dioxins are a class of chemical contaminants that are formed during combustion processes such as waste incineration, forest fires, and backyard trash burning. Studies have also shown that chemical workers who are exposed to high levels of dioxins have an increased risk of cancer.

During the hearing, Wortham said throughout the course of his legal career, "he's never seen evidence supporting (dioxins) causation of leukemia."

The judge suggested Hall hire a new lawyer who had working knowledge of the "science involved" and submit his motion for new trial by June 25.

"The fact that you don't have an attorney puts you at an extreme disadvantage," Wortham told Hall. "My hands are tied. The defendants have no idea what your allegations are. You've had seven months to hire a new lawyer."

The companies granted summary judgments are Conoco Phillips, Shell, Navajo and Arkema Inc.

In August 2007, Arizona residents Bobby and Nellye Hall sued Arco of the Panhandle Inc., along with 19 other petrochemical companies, for manufacturing and distributing benzene and other toxic chemicals.

According to the suit, "for many years," Hall was exposed to "dangerous levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals," including benzene-containing products and other "toxic" solvents.

"Hall's exposures to these toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and substances, distributed, marketed, and/or manufactured by defendants…was a legal cause of his illness," the suit said, adding that the defendants were aware of the dangers associated with benzene exposure.

The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is produced by the burning of natural products.

"It is a component of products derived from coal and petroleum and is found in gasoline and other fuels," the OSHA Web site said. "Benzene is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents, pesticides, and other chemicals. Research has shown benzene to be a carcinogen (cancer-causing). With exposures from less than five years to more than 30 years, individuals have developed, and died from, leukemia."

Along with Arco, the six-count suit named oil conglomerates such as Exxon, Shell and Valero as defendants, and faults all 20 defendants with negligence, strict liability, premise liability, defendant's liability, misrepresentation and conspiracy and gross negligence.

Hall is seeking damages for past and future mental anguish, physical impairment and disfigurement, pain and medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, plus recovery of pre and post-judgment interest.

Furthermore, he is seeking punitive and exemplary damages, the suit states.

Case No. A179-808

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