West Pharmaceuticals lawsuit beyond frivolity

Published 8:50 am Saturday, March 29, 2003

By Staff
We cannot say lawsuits were unexpected. Any time a tragedy occurs and a company that appears to have deep pockets is involved, the lawsuits appear in a short space of time.
However, we are struck by the sheer audacity of people unconnected with West Pharmaceuticals who have joined together in a lawsuit against the company, alleging they were exposed to dangerous chemicals during the Jan. 29 explosion at the Kinston plant and that their property was damaged.
The three plaintiffs just happened to live within a mile of the facility.
On top of that, they have asked a Superior Court judge to classify their case a class-action lawsuit, so others who were "harmed" can join them in seeking hefty payments from West Pharmaceuticals. The icing on this cake is that seven attorneys are handling the lawsuit. Only one is from North Carolina -- New Bern to be exact -- while the others are from, of all places, Louisiana.
If this is not a classic example of ambulance-chasing, then we wonder what we should call it.
How many times in recent years have we seen the ads in newspapers seeking people who took a drug that had been ordered pulled from the market by the FDA. This lawsuit against West Pharmaceuticals is just a variation on a theme -- attorneys trying to get rich off a major lawsuit. In this case, at this point, we feel the probability that the defendant actually is guilty of genuine wrongdoing or gross negligence is in fact quite small.
Federal investigators have concluded that the plant explosion was produced by the ignition of airborne dust particles. However, they are uncertain of the source of the spark. Dust has been the culprit in similar explosions through the years. According to news reports we have read about these situations, the best efforts to prevent accumulation of dust sometimes simply cannot prevent combustion from taking place -- such is the nature of this type of reaction.
We could understand a lawsuit filed by employees of West Pharmaceuticals if they felt company management was not taking adequate steps to guard against explosions. Indeed, we believe such a lawsuit would have appeared before now if any worker at the plant felt the environment was not safe there preceding the Jan. 29 tragedy.
Of course, we cannot discount the possibility that federal investigators ultimately will point a finger at West Pharmaceuticals for failure to take adequate safety precautions. However, we must applaud company representatives for what has appeared to be a determined effort to look out for their employees both before and after the explosion.
The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit may have genuine concerns about whether they will suffer any future, ill consequences from their exposure to chemicals that permeated the air surrounding the plant on Jan. 29 and over the next few days. We also have some sympathy in regard to their suffering property damage.
However, we cannot help but wonder just how serious their concerns were before they were contacted by that group of attorneys from Louisiana. More than one company in the United States has been driven out of business by class-action lawsuits that were founded in greed and hysteria, with no solid evidence to support them. Other companies, of course, have gotten off relatively scot-free when they clearly were negligent in their operations.
Our judicial system needs to provide recourse for people who truly have been wronged by another entity, especially in cases involving gross negligence or reckless disregard for people's safety -- or the environment. However, lawsuits like this one filed by three people who just happened to live in the vicinity of the West Pharmaceuticals plant cast a dark shadow on similar actions, regardless of their merit. We hope the judge who ends up presiding in this case makes very short shrift of it.