Retired workers unwitting plaintiffs

Steve Korris Oct. 20, 2005, 5:42am

Attorney Robert Ramsey of Brent Coon & Associates' St. Louis office

Brent Coon

Retired locomotive makers who filed asbestos suits in Madison County last month did not know they had filed the suits until just days ago.

They heard about it from a reporter.

Eight plaintiffs interviewed by the Record said no one told them they had become litigants. Six said they did not know where Madison County was.

Attorney Brent Coon of Beaumont, Texas, delivered their complaints and 130 others to the courthouse in boxes on Sept. 27.

The complaints did not give addresses for plaintiffs, not even cities or counties. The complaints did not give middle initials.

Peculiar names, however, marked a trail that led to United Auto Workers Local 719, near Chicago and Electro-Motive, a factory in McCook that built railroad locomotives.

Seven plaintiffs told the Record they worked at Electro-Motive, which once employed more workers than any other in the Chicago area. In 1979, more than 14,000 Electro-Motive workers built five and a half locomotives a day.

All trades in the factory belonged to UAW Local 719, skilled or not.

Today the factory is gone, the property is bare, but the union carries on.

The plaintiffs

The Electro-Motive plaintiffs that the Record contacted belong to Local 719. They responded to a union notice of asbestos screening from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, 2003.

“We had nothing to do with it,” said the person who answered the phone at Local 719. “All we did was let them have space so they could take tests.”

She said X-rays were taken by asbestos respiratory services, “or something like that.”

Asked if it was Respiratory Testing Services (RTS), she said it was.

She would not give her name. She said the president of the local should comment, but he was at a meeting in Detroit. His name, she said, was Frank Lewandowski.

A person with that name filed one of the suits. Upon hearing this, the person who answered the phone said, “I’m probably in there, too.”

Asked if she was Berneda Robb, she said yes.

At least she knew Madison County was somewhere around St. Louis. So did plaintiff Robert Peroutky of South Beloit. None of the others knew that much.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said John Bartusch of Janesville, Wisc.

To find plaintiffs, the Record entered names in White Pages on the Internet. Common names yielded many entries, but some names singled plaintiffs out.

Ignac Rebrica of Chicago said, “They didn’t let me know nothing about it. They did send me some papers about a year ago and after that I didn’t hear nothing.”

He said the attorney was some place southwest. Asked if it was Texas, he said, “Texas. I think it is, yes.”

Peroutky said, “I didn’t get no letter from my lawyer.”

“There is probably 900 people or better in that class action lawsuit,” he said.

He said the X-ray readers came out of Mobile, Ala. “Respiratory services or something like that,” he said. “I don’t have their card.

“They come with a truck,” Peoutky continued. “They had a doctor. I was a two on a scale of ten.”

He said there was a settlement with a company but a bankruptcy put it on hold.

Peroutky said he thought they should have sued General Motors, which owned Electro-Motive.

When Peroutky was informed that his suit was aimed at General Motors (and others), he responded, “As far as me, they said they weren’t going to sue General Motors.”

“Asbestos fell out of the ovens where they cooked armatures. Sh-- was blowing through the air. The warehouse was full of the (expletive). Even the cafeteria had it.”

Joseph Sciacca of Westchester said he thought the union X-rayed him.

He said a lawyer from Texas talked to him about asbestos and silicon.

“I haven’t heard any more,” Sciacca said.

“A lot of people were tested over there. They were there a couple of times. The first time I didn’t go but people said some of them got money.”

Donald Lyle of Chicago said he thought he was part of a class action asbestos suit.

Donald Mascarella of River Grove said he was X–rayed in Chicago two years ago.

“Texas or something it was filed,” said Mascarella.

He said he never heard of Brent Coon.

“This was all handled by the union,” he said.

Wisconsin plaintiff Bartusch said, “I didn’t sign any paperwork or meet with anybody.”

“I worked around the ovens - in the ovens,” said Bartusch.

He said the lawyers went after Crane Company but the company filed for bankruptcy.

“They offered me a thousand dollars,” he said. “I said that was bull----.”

He found an offer letter and said it was dated Dec. 17, 2004.

Bartusch said he called Coon and was told that the offer was null and void.

Upon hearing that he sued in Madison County, he at first thought he sued in Madison, Wisc., 35 miles north of Janesville.

Instead, his lawsuit is 275 miles from home. “I’ll be darned,” he said. “It shouldn’t be.

“I need to know what’s going on. I’m falling apart, you know.”

Ronald Roulhac of Chicago said he did not work at Electro-Motive. He said someone contacted him about screening.

“They were lawyers, I guess,” he said. “They went around asking people to take some kind of tests.”

He said his lawyer was Coon and Associates. “I gave them power to do whatever they wanted,” he said. “If they did it I’m happy.

“I don’t know Madison County. I never heard of it.”

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