Reopening of 'Sick Building' Case Unlikely
The N.C. Industrial Commission is unlikely to reopen the case of seven former county workers who claim that a building made them sick in the early 1990s.
The seven employees filed worker compensation claims against Moore County and its insurance company, Sedgwick of the Carolinas, in the mid-1990s. The county and the insurance carrier have disputed the claims, arguing that there was no proof that the building made them sick.
The N.C. Court of Appeals last month sent the matter back to the Industrial Commission, saying that it had not made the necessary findings of fact required to support its decision. It is the second time the appeals court has ordered the commission to go back and make the proper findings.
George Lennon, the attorney representing the former workers, said last week that he was copied on an e-mail that the law clerk of the panel chairwoman sent to the attorneys for the insurance company, asking them to submit to the commission by Feb. 18 a proposed "opinion and award" supporting their clients' position and taking into account concerns raised by the appeals court.
"The appearance is that they have decided to rule against our workers again," Lennon said. "We would have at least liked to have had the opportunity to address the commission or file new briefs."
Lennon would also receive a copy of the proposed opinion, but it's unclear whether he would be allowed to make any arguments.
Meredith Henderson, the law clerk to commission Chairwoman Pamela Young, said Friday that "no decision is made until it is stamped and filed." She said it would be up to the full commission to decide what to do.
"I would have no problem with what the commission decides if they just understand what the true facts are," Lennon said. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
The Pilot was unable to reach Matt Little, the attorney representing the insurance carrier. He had a death in the family and was out of the office. In an interview in late December, Little said he was optimistic the Industrial Commission would reaffirm earlier decisions denying the workers' claims that the county building made them sick. He cited testing done by the county on the building, which turned up nothing.
Lennon expressed frustration that the commission will not address some of the issues he has raised, such as spoliation of evidence that would back his claims.
He said the limited testing the county conducted was done only after the county had "sanitized" the building. He said the county removed carpet and ceiling tiles, improved the ventilation system and installed windows that would open and close, and then hired an environmental firm to test the building.
"All of the testing was done after the county sanitized the building," he said. "No testing was done while they were still in the building."
Lennon said there is clear medical evidence that the workers were exposed to pesticides and sewer gases, contrary to what the county claims. He also said experts hired by the county's insurance carrier testified that the illnesses can be attributed to "mass hysteria." He said that is actually contradicted by other testimony.
"They (county) claimed as a fact that no one else got sick, yet their own supervisor (planning and inspections) testified he had symptoms even though he did not file a claim," he said. "The commission has completely misunderstood what the facts are. It is just a very frustrating situation.
"The medical evidence of cause-and-effect was unrebutted. Many of these symptoms could not be produced by psychological factors."
He cited results of nasal biopsies done on the employees that "were consistent with pesticide exposure," and welts that one of the workers had all over his body.
All of the employees worked in the Community Services Building in the Moore County Office Park on Pinehurst Avenue in Carthage. The county bought the building in 1987.
The workers began talking among themselves about their health problems in 1994, and they began to suspect something in the building had made them sick. Their symptoms included chronic fatigue, skin lesions, respiratory and nervous problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness, swelling and mood swings.
A company called Ren Electronics made computer components there from 1980 to 1986. Some former Ren employees said chemicals were routinely dumped on the ground, on the floor and down the drains.
The county vacated the building in 1994, renovated it and had it tested. No toxins were detected in the air. The workers were moved back in, but some got sick again.
The county moved their departments out of the building again in 1995. The office portion of the building, which also has a large warehouse, has since been used only for storage. No employees work in the office portion of the building.
'Waiting Long Time'
The seven employees filed the workers' compensation claims in 1995 and 1996.
In 2001, Deputy Commissioner Crystal R. Stanback, of the N.C. Industrial Commission, awarded Sharon Scott, Frankie McCaskill, Dawn Kidd, Frances Huffman and Deborah Rogers permanent and total disability compensation and awarded Tom Marsh and Roger Kennedy temporary total disability compensation, according to court records.
The full commission reversed that decision in 2005.
In 2007, the N.C. Court of Appeals said the Industrial Commission did not make the necessary findings to reject the workers' claims and remanded the case. The commission again rejected the claims that September.
In the ruling issued in December, the Court of Appeals again said that the Industrial Commission did not make the findings required to support its decision. The appeals court also said that since the workers first filed their claims, medical science may have made advancements to understand the situation better, so the commission could consider reopening the case.
Little said in the interview in late December that he saw no reason to reopen the case because the plaintiffs have not presented any new evidence.
Lennon said that if the commission makes the same ruling as it has twice before, he will appeal the decision once again to the state Court of Appeals.
"We've been waiting a long time," Lennon said. "Waiting for justice takes a long time."
Contact David Sinclair at 693-2462 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story