WASHINGTON – A federal judge has dismissed a multistate class-action suit that sought to force cell phone companies to provide free headsets to protect users from potential radiation damage.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ruled Wednesday that the suit, organized by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, was “a disguised attack” on federal safety regulations already in place.
It was the latest in a series of court victories for cell phone companies. While most cases have tried unsuccessfully to link cell phones to brain tumors, none of the plaintiffs in this case had brain tumors. Their lawyers focused instead on the necessity of headsets and of warnings as ways to prevent such diseases.
“It’s somewhat of a side case — not the main event,” said Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News magazine, which has covered the health debate on electromagnetic radiation since its first issue 23 years ago.
“This is a completely different avenue: Instead of claiming health injuries, it’s about whether companies should be providing means of avoiding exposure.” Slesin said.
Angelos — whose firm took the lead on a case that ultimately involved more than 100 lawyers on both sides — could not be reached Thursday to see if he planned to appeal Blake’s decision.
The case began as five different class-action suits in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and Louisiana, with several plaintiffs in each state and more than 30 companies named as defendants.
The plaintiffs had all bought cell phones that came without headsets or warnings to use a headset. While they had not been diagnosed with tumors as a result of their cell-phone use at the time they sued, they were seeking unspecified punitive damages and an order that all consumers, past and future, be provided headsets.
That could add up: The Census Bureau estimated that there were 128.4 million cell phone subscribers in 2001.
“There’s no way to estimate the cost of that, but we’re talking very, very expensive,” said Harold Walter, a lawyer for cell phone companies Samsung and Nokia. “(Angelos) made his fortune on asbestos litigation. Obviously, he was hoping to make another fortune here.”
But Slesin disagreed.
“No one was going to get rich off this. It was a consciousness-raising lawsuit,” he said. “And part of what was sought in this case is already happening.”
Shortly after the suit was filed in 2001, AT&T Wireless offered its customers free headsets.
Lawyers for the mobile phone industry have relied on three major studies, including one by the National Cancer Institute, to show that cell phones do not cause adverse health effects.
A Food and Drug Administration web site on cell phones said “there is no proof . . . that wireless phones are absolutely safe.” But in her decision dismissing the suits, Blake also noted that the FDA site says there is not sufficient proof to justify regulatory actions.
“She basically decided that the court is not a proper place for the issue to be resolved,” Walter said. “The FDA and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) have already been charged by Congress to determine if cell phones are safe.”
Without new data, experts say cell phone companies will almost certainly continue to win cases claiming radiation injuries from the popular phones.
“People using cell phones are putting radio transmitters next to their brain,” Slesin said. “There’s no question that most of radiation that goes into your body. The question is whether it does any damage.”