Thursday, August 02, 2007


A whole bunch of folks around Richton, a small Mississippi town near Hattiesburg, got sick burning woodchips supplied by Powe Timer Company. They got nowhere with their complaints so they took the matter to court and convinced the judge that their claims were true.

Sounds like a good outcome, right?


The judge dismissed the suit he said because the testimony of their expert witness didn't meet State law as to what an expert's testimony should be. Huh?

Ain't that America.

The following is from the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American.

Judge dismisses Powe Timber Co. lawsuit

Circuit Judge Bob Helfrich on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of Richton residents who claimed that they became ill from burning woodchips supplied by Powe Timber Co.

Helfrich handed down the summary judgment in favor of the timber company because the residents could not provide expert testimony that linked their illnesses to burning the woodchips that were chemically treated by the company.

Approximately 30 Richton residents listened Monday as members of their community stood in Forrest County Circuit Court and offered Helfrich stories about how their families and the families of their friends had been affected by illness.

Residents claim they came into contact with the plant's chemicals after bringing home scrap pieces of wood from telephone poles treated with preservatives to burn in their fireplaces.

Approximately 1,400 people have filed lawsuits in Jasper, Perry and Forrest counties against the company in the past 10 years. They claim a broad array of ills from inhalation of creosote smoke to touching of creosote treated wood chips.

"I just don't think it should be thrown out," former Richton resident Yvonne Powell told the court.

Helfrich explained the procedure set forth by the Mississippi Supreme Court prevented him from relying solely on allegations and complaints.

"You need to show evidence related to problems with the woodchips showing the defendants caused this," said Helfrich. "You can't simply come in and say you have a disease."

Helfrich repeatedly told the plaintiffs he believed their illnesses were real, but without the sworn testimony of an expert who could connect the woodchips to the plaintiff's health problems, he could do nothing.

Resident Ruby Husband presented a letter addressed to the plaintiff's lawyer from Vera S. Byers, a doctor with Immunology Inc. of San Francisco. In the letter, the doctor suggests smoke from the wood chips collected from the American Wood wood-treatment plant in Richton caused a number of illnesses among the 350 clients she evaluated. The letter, however, did not constitute the sort of testimony required under state law to halt the dismissal of the case.

"I'm not judging how this should or shouldn't be, just the way it is," said Helfrich. "I am required to grant this motion. I don't have a choice in the matter."

Residents lingered in the courtroom after the decision expressing their disappointment.

"We have no choice now but to take this to the voters," said Powell, who organized a protest march near the offices of American Wood in November. "These judges are ruling in favor of businesses. Once again, the people have lost."

Husband said she and the other plaintiffs plan to organize efforts to seek the attention of Congress.

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