CUMBERLAND – Webster B. Long III died waiting for his day in court.
Four days before he died of stomach cancer, a federal court rejected the fourth appeal by Long and 65 other plaintiffs who claimed toxic exposure to chemicals at Goodyear’s Kelly-Springfield tire plant in Cumberland made them sick.
Some of the plaintiffs had filed suit against Goodyear as long as 15 years earlier. In all that time, the workers — as well as plaintiffs in two other lawsuits against Goodyear — have never had a chance to plead their case in court, always losing in the pretrial stages.
“That’s a lot of false hope,” said former Kelly carpenter Wesley “Red” Bartlett last month, sitting gingerly on a couch in his Cumberland home.
Bartlett, still reddish-haired at age 71, said he has lost one kidney, one prostate gland and half a lung in his seven-year battle against cancer. He says his first illness was asbestosis, diagnosed in 1986, the year before “the Kelly” closed.
Long, who suffered from emphysema, asthma, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, stomach cancer and chronic bronchitis, died a week and a day after Easter Sunday.
“Every week there’s a Kelly worker dead,” Bartlett said. “It ain’t from old age.”
Officials at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. declined to comment on details of the Kelly lawsuits. After the workers’ third loss in March, Goodyear spokesman Fred Haymond said the company was “pleased to see the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has brought this drawn-out case to a conclusion. This case has tied up company time and resources for more than a decade.”
Long’s case was one of 66 lawsuits that were consolidated into Aldridge vs. Goodyear. That suit, in turn, was one of four multiparty suits against the tire company for alleged hazardous conditions at Kelly-Springfield, which got its materials from Goodyear.
The first group of Kelly workers filed suit in 1982, while the plant was still open. Plaintiffs in that case, Heinrich vs. Goodyear, received a confidential settlement from Goodyear.
All three of the other groups have lost before going to trial.
In Jewell vs. Goodyear and McClelland vs. Goodyear, federal courts ruled that the workers failed to prove that exposure to chemicals at the Kelly plant caused their illnesses, according to court documents.
In the Aldridge case, plaintiffs argued that in addition to exposure, Goodyear did not disclose either the identity of the chemicals or the risks of exposure.
But federal district judges in Baltimore threw Aldridge out three times, for the same reasons cited in Jewell and McClelland cases. The appeals court twice sent the case back to Baltimore with orders to allow a limited exchange of evidence. But on the third appeal, the circuit court upheld the dismissal of the case.
The workers’ attorneys this month asked the full circuit court to review the ruling, but were turned down. There is still the chance of an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“After 10 years, these attorneys don’t understand the meaning of the word no. Here we go again,” Goodyear’s Haymond said, on learning of the most recent round of appeals.
Bartlett, and his wife, Anna, 68, don’t understand why the suit has taken so long and wonder what will come of it.
“We just don’t count on it (winning),” the Bartletts said before they lost their fourth appeal.
Former rubber mixer Thomas Brown also wonders if the case will ever amount to anything.
Brown said he worked eight-hour shifts in the mill room, covered in the soapstone dust that was used to keep the rubber from sticking together. The dust was so thick that a person could not identify someone standing 50 feet away, he said, and the room was so hot that a person could not have breathed through a respirator if he had one.
“I don’t see how anybody survived it,” Brown said.
Asked if he was ever warned about the hazards of chemicals in the plant, Brown laughed and replied, “No way,” although he said barrels in the mill room were labeled “Poison – Do Not Inhale,” with directions to wash immediately if the dust touched skin.
Brown’s lungs are so filled with soapstone, the World War II veteran said last month, that doctors at a Veterans Affairs hospital thought he had tuberculosis. He said inhalers do not help get air flowing through the golf- ball-sized spots of tissue damage — “just like wet cement” — on his lungs.
Brown, who worked 16 years at the plant, went on disability in the early 1970s after losing most of a hand in a mixer accident. He said any physical exertion today is hard and he can’t walk fast. He receives $280 a month from Goodyear, but no more disability payments.
Bartlett said that as a carpenter, he worked throughout the facility, facing the range of environments there. His doctors said his cancer was “the same kind of cancer they’re having problems with at the Kelly,” he said.
He cannot do much around the house these days — a trip up one flight of stairs leaves him breathless. His wife recently lost half her left foot to complications from an operation, and she said she can only walk their 70-pound boxer a few blocks on her leather prosthesis. A grandson who had been helping them is moving out this spring.
“It’s been a good five hard years,” Mrs. Bartlett said, referring to their illnesses and operations. “It’s been his turn, my turn, his turn, my turn.”
Long’s widow, Leona, said last month said she does not expect to get anything from the lawsuit.
“I don’t even think about it anymore,” she said. But she would not hesitate to take the case on to the Supreme Court.
“Oh, yes,” she said of the possibility of another appeal. Her son, Matthew, agrees. “I’m not going to let them drop the ball,” he said.
Bartlett, too, is ready to fight on.
Asked if he wants to press on to the Supreme Court, Bartlett replied, “Hell, yeah.” He would like to be able to provide for his wife and kids, he said.