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Fish Culturist’s Widow Advances Negligence Suit

(CN) - Georgia-Pacific Chemicals must face claims that exposure to formaldehyde and other chemicals it manufactured and sold killed a fish culturist, a federal judge ruled.

Danielle Sickles sued Western Chemical Inc. and Argent Chemical Laboratories, both of Washington, and 25 anonymous defendants on Sept. 7, 2010, on behalf of her husband Mark, a former laborer and fish culturist for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission in Linesville, Pa.

From 1983 to 2009, Mark worked directly with various toxic chemicals the defendants manufactured, including formalin and formalin-based products, according to the complaint.

Though the fungi-repellent substances often made Mark severely dizzy and ill, he never received any warning or instruction to protect his lungs, his wife claims.

Mark was formally diagnosed with pancytopenia, a medical condition marked by a decrease in red and white blood cells, on Dec. 30, 2008, the complaint states.

Months later, an oncologist allegedly ordered the fish culturist to take time off from his "very dirty" work environment, and ultimately diagnosed him with the blood disease, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) fka preleukemia.

Mark quit the fish hatchery later that year, but died on Nov. 2, 2011.

His wife then amended her complaint to add as defendants the Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Chemicals LLC, along with Borden Chemical Inc. and Hexion Specialty Chemicals Inc. She asserts claims for design and marketing defects, negligence, wrongful death, and survival.

After a federal judge dismissed the claims as time-barred last year, the plaintiff added that she was unaware of the link between the chemicals and Mark's illness until April 2010, when his stepdaughter, Sunni Loucks, researched the disease on the Internet.

Loucks, frustrated over the fact that that none of her stepfather's physicians had tried to identify the cause of his illness, used MSN.com over her lunch break at work to search terms such as "cause," "cure" and "life expectancy" in connection with MDS, she later testified.

When Loucks showed Mark a list of chemicals previously linked to MDS, including formalin, at dinner that night, he turned "white as a ghost" and became very upset, as he had worked with formalin on a daily basis for 26 years, according to his wife's testimony.

Georgia-Pacific and Borden and Hexion's Ohio-based successor, Momentive Specialty Chemicals Inc., jointly moved for summary judgment, arguing that the testimony is self-serving and unsupported, and that Mark knew of the link before he quit the hatchery.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti denied the motion last week.

"After carefully reviewing the evidence summarized above, and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff, the court concludes that there is a genuine issue of material fact concerning the date on which Sickles first discovered that his MDS might have been caused by his exposure to formalin," Conti wrote. "Simply put, the record as a whole is entirely susceptible to conflicting inferences with respect to the timeline of Sickles' discovery of the potential link between MDS and exposure to formalin. Resolution of these issues will depend in large measure upon the credibility of plaintiff and the plausibility of her explanation for Sickles' failure to discover the source of his illness prior to his stepdaughter's Internet investigation. Such determinations are fundamentally the province of a jury. As a result, defendants' request for summary judgment must be denied."

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