Latin America and the Caribbean

4 January 1996

By Diana B. Henriques

Lawyers for the family of a Guatemalan teen-ager who died in 1993 from the effects of sniffing glue have refiled a civil suit that accuses the H. B. Fuller Company, an industrial products manufacturer, of being responsible for the boy's death.

The complaint was filed late yesterday afternoon in Federal Dstrict Court in St. Paul, where Fuller--which dominates the Central American adhesives market--is based. The suit had previously been filed in Texas early last year, but was withdrawn with court permission for refiling in Minnesota.

A lawyer for Fuller said last night that the company would immediately seek dismissal of the action, on the ground that it belongs in a Guatemalan court. Glue-sniffing should not be treated as a legal issue related to any given product," said Janice Symchych of the firm Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. "It's also grossly illogical to put American courts in the position of addressing the social problems of Central American street children."

The lawsuit is the latest escalation of a long battle between Fuller and various advocates for Central and Latin American children, led by Covenant House of New York. For nearly five years, the advocates have been pressing Fuller to adopt a non-intoxicating formula or add an irritant to discourage abuse of its commercial glue products, or alternatively to withdraw the products from the Central American countries where they are widely abused by homeless children. The products are not sold in the United States.

Fuller has replaced the most dangerous solvents in its glue formula, toluene, with a less attractive but still hazardous chemical, cyclohexane. But the company, which prides itself on its "good citizen" image, has resisted other demands, citing the needs of commercial users and arguing that the only effective way to combat inhalant abuse is to tackle the social issues that contribute to it.

The lawsuit, filed under Minnesota's "wrongful death" statute, seeks to hold Fuller responsible for the death of 16-year-old Joel Linares, who as a child "became attracted to the intoxicating effects available from inhaling the fumes from defendants' products."

The complaint continues, "As a result of inhaling the fumes from defendants' products, Joel Linares suffered severe and permanent injuries," from which he later died.

Scott Hendler of Austin, Tex., one of the lawyers representing the boy's family, said yesterday that the lawsuit's first hurdle would be Fuller's challenge over whether the Federal courts have jurisdiction. "I am optimistic that we will turn that corner," Mr. Hendler said.

If the suit survives the jurisdiction challenge, Mr. Hendler said he and his co-counsel--the Heins Mills & Olson firm in Minneapolis and Michael Brickman of Charleston, S.C.--will decide whether to seek to expand the case into a class action on behalf of all Central American children who have become addicted to Fuller's products.

Copyright 1996 by The New York Times


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