Latin America and the Caribbean

StarTribune (Minneapolis)
12 October 1996

Counterpoint: Fuller's so-called court victory

The recent U.S. federal court ruling in favor of St. Paul-based H.B. Fuller Co. (Star Tribune, Sept. 25) turned away a plea for justice from an impoverished Guatemalan family. It was yet another in a long line of legal complaints from Latin Americans who have suffered at the hands of U.S. chemical companies.

Fuller has produced Resistol glues in Central America for more than 15 years. In that same period, which saw profits from Fuller's Latin American division soar, street children by the thousands became chemically addicted to sniffing Resistol as a narcotic. Neurological damage, kidney and liver disease, and deaths have ensued for many children who unknowingly were exposed to chemicals in the adhesives.

The kids turned to the glue because it took away their hunger pangs and killed the feeling of cold they felt lying on the pavement at night under a shed of corrugated cardboard (Star Tribune, April 21). It was a pragmatic option to an overwhelmingly difficult situation of homelessness and despair. But the choice could also cost them their lives. The addiction itself has been likened to opium -- an intense compulsion to inhale the deadly fumes that drives children to prostitution, robbery, anything just to get another hit.

No one told these kids about the harm that would come to them. For years Fuller never even put a warning on the cans. It just kept making more and more Resistol and watched the bottom line bulge. The profit line's rise parallels the rise in street children as Central American economies floundered and war prevailed. Because the products were "legal," the company reasoned, nobody would ever catch up to it.

Not, at least, until children's advocates working on behalf of street kids in Latin America and a Texas lawyer with a penchant for human rights filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of that orphaned Guatemalan family. The Linareses lost their 16-year-old brother Joel to kidney failure, believed to have resulted from chronic exposure to Resistol. Working together with Bruce Harris, Covenant House Latin America and Minnesota activists, attorney Scott Hendler attempted to bring the case forward in Minnesota federal court, but was turned away, barred from presenting the compelling evidence of corporate negligence to a jury. Judge Michael Davis, surprisingly, held that a corporation is not responsible for its subsidiaries. It was also the arcane and outdated concept of forum non conveniens -- inconvenient forum -- that Fuller rallied to its benefit and which Davis used secondarily as reason to expel this case.

Davis' ruling was not about right and wrong, about guilt or innocence -- despite the celebratory terms Fuller applies to the pronouncement. It was simply about technical jurisdictional opinion -- Davis' opinion -- about whether he wanted this in his courtroom or not. It is a discretionary judgment, piled high with case law on both sides of the argument.

Nobody celebrates when the bully wins on the playground and nobody should be celebrating Fuller's so-called victory. Fuller public relations person Bill Belknap's statement that "we look forward to putting this matter behind us" dismisses the existence of these children and the real suffering they have endured because Fuller chose not to reformulate or otherwise protect children from the toxins in its products. Those of us who care about young people cannot and will not dismiss the lives of thousands of children so easily.

Fuller executives are deluded if they think this is the end of efforts to protect and defend street children, and to expose Fuller's negligence. The issues of guilt, of culpability, of willful disregard, and restitution remain. It is perhaps telling that Davis steered clear of addressing them in his opinion. And he didn't even came close to absolving Fuller of moral responsibility for the unconscionable harm these children have suffered from the company's products. Courts cannot grant absolution. Only a higher power can do that.

--Bonnie Hayskar, St. Paul
Children's Rights Advocate

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