Mobile phone lawsuits

Tobacco, asbestos and lead - exposures to these toxic substances have devastated lives, changed social perceptions of what is acceptable, diminished corporate revenue, generated huge compensation claims and earned prosecuting lawyers healthy rewards.

Will the same be true for mobile phones? An interesting synergy would suggest that this is the case. Take an increasing number of people experiencing symptoms after mobile phone use, add an increasing body of scientific evidence of risk and mix with the extensive resources of superlawyer Peter Angelos, who earned a reputation and a huge profit in litigation against the tobacco, lead and asbestos industries and who has a network of 110 lawyers in six states in the US.

Angelos has been researching the mobile phone/health issue for some time and has previously indicated (“Business Week” 14.08.00) that he would not take on cases unless he was “90% sure” of success.

On December 6, Angelos signed an agreement to work with Joanne Suder, the lawyer who is representing Dr Christopher Newman (the neurologist who is suing for $800 million in compensation and damages for his brain tumour) and at least ten other potential litigants.

In mid January lawyer John Pica, who works for Angelos, filed an amended complaint (the original complaint was lodged in August last year by Suder) against a number of companies, including Motorola and Verizon Wirless. The suit accuses the industry of fraud, conspiring, manipulating research, intimidating scientists, misleading the public and failing to warn consumers about potential health risks.

Some weeks before, Pica was quoted in the British press, discussing the impending litigation: “If these companies knew about the dangers of cellphone radiation they should be punished and they should be punished dearly: not only for what they did to the public but for the billions of pounds of profits they made.” Pica was reported as saying that another ten law suits would be launched during the year 2001, most of which would name Verizon Wireless, part of the Vodafone group, as a defendant. (The Times, 28.12.00) In subsequent trading on the London stock exchange, Vodafone shares tumbled, causing losses of an estimated $3 billion.

On January 29 Joanne Suder filed suit against the mobile phone industry on behalf of Brian Barrett. Barrett, who has a terminal brain tumour in the precise location where his mobile phone antenna, was a heavy phone user who generated bills of around $1000 per month. According to Suder, Barrett’s story is similar to those of hundreds of potential litigants in the US and Europe.

A second law suit, launched by Michael Allweiss (acting for a client in Louisiana), against 16 defendants, including Nokia and Motorola, alleges that the cell phone industry has been profiting from the sale of mobile phones even though they know the devices may be dangerous. It claims that mobile phones should be used with a handset to reduce exposure and therefore the health risks to users. Thus, new customers should be provided with free headsets and former customers be reimbursed for headsets they may have subsequently bought. The suit also claims that there should be monitoring of the health of people who use mobile phones without headsets and damages for emotional suffering.

The mobile phone industry attempted to have the case dismissed by claiming that courts have no authority to arbitrate on the issue of mobile phone safety as this is the function of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). In other words, Federal ‘pre-emption’ prevents intervention at a local level. However, Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that the case could proceed. Local courts were only constrained by pre-emption if the FDA had already issued specific guidelines whereas, he felt, the Authority had been indecisive.

According to George Carlo (former director of Wireless Technology Research [WTR]), this ruling “is a big blow to the national litigation strategy of the industry. This federal preemption argument was emerging as one of the industry’s standard responses to all the issues. It’s a main line of defense.” The case can now proceed and has the potential to develop as a national class action.

A third law suit is progressing in Illinois. This class action, originally filed in 1995, has snowballed and names 100 mobile phone companies who manufacture or sell mobile phones. The suit claims that industry has invaded privacy and covered up health risks in an epidemiological study conducted by WTR.

Again industry attempted to derail the suit by having it declassified and again this attempt was overriden in court. (16.01.01)

EMRAA News June 2001, Vol 6 No 2