H. B. FULLER SUED IN TEEN'S DEATH
By Paul McEnroe and Susan E. Peterson
A lawsuit alleging that H.B. Fuller's toxic glue products caused the 1993 death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul. The suit promises to escalate the debate surrounding corporate responsibility and the plight of tens of thousands of Central American children who are addicted to inhalants.
The suit charges that for years leading up to his death, Joel Linares suffered severe physical and neurological injuries as a result of inhaling Fuller's products, chief among them Resistol, a glue popular among Central American street children.
Linares died Jan. 4, 1993. The suit claims that his death was a result of negligence by Fuller because it knew that the glue products containing the chemical toluene were lethal and that it did not issue adequate warnings that usage would cause injury and death.
If u>S. District Judge Michael Davis certifies the case for a jury trial, the plaintiff's attorney, Scott Hendler of Austin, Texas, will seek class-action status by spring, Hendler said Wednesday. Such an action could create a potentially immense liability against the company because of the large number of children in Central America who sniff glue.
The suit claims that Fuller designed its "products in such a way that children such as Joel Linares would be attracted to the products' fumes despite the company's knowledge of the dangers [its] products posed to children." It also claims that Fuller failed to warn adequately about product dangers.
Fuller officials said they will ask their lawyers to seek immediate dismissal of the suit. Fuller said it will seek dismissal on the grounds that if the suit belongs in any court, it belongs in Guatemala.
"Substance abuse is a sad and pervasive social problem, whether it involves alcohol, prescription drugs, illegitimate drugs, gasoline. aerosol products or other inhalants," said Janice Symchych, an attorney representing Fuller. "Good evidence suggests that substance-abusing children will seek out one substance or another depending on what's available in their environment. This shows that the problem should not be treated as a legal issue related to any given product and that it is beyond the logical scope of the courts to resolve."
She said it was "grossly illogical to put American courts in the position of addressing the social problems of Central American street children."
After a July 1992 decision by its board of directors, Fuller said it would stop sales of Resistol in Central America "wherever it is being misused."
As a result, Fuller said it was removing the product from retail sales in Guatemala and Honduras. At the time, Fuller's decision was praised widely by business analysts and editorial writers, who also lauded the company's position that inhalant abuse should be attacked on a broader scale. Fuller has prided itself on funding social, educational and drug treatment programs to try to help street children.
But now the suit is forcing the company's actions to be re-examined.
Children's advocates in Central America, as well as in the United States, say that Fuller continues to sell Resistol in Guatemala and Honduras and that it is easily available to children throughout Central America.
Tighter controls on distribution would have prevented Fuller's products from "falling into the hands of children such as Joel Linares," the suit claims. "An unknown number of children have died from these injuries."
Advocates say Fuller should add harsh-smelling oil of mustard seed to its glue products to discourage inhalant abuse. The Linares death could have been avoided if such an additive was used, the suit claims.
But Fuller maintains that adding another toxic ingredient into its adhesives would harm legitimate users such as shoemakers. Further, it said it recently changed the formula of its industrial glue in Central America, removing toluene and adding cyclohexane, a fouler smelling toxic chemical.
Fuller said it has been trying to come up with a water-based, nontoxic replacement glue for years, and in 1994 it formed a partnership with an unnamed chemical company to develop such a product.