Miss. firm, workers spar in court over injuries

Published 1:24 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Franklin Corp. has asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to overturn a multimillion-dollar verdict on grounds that the furniture manufacturer did not intend for harm to come to four workers when the company started using a new glue.

The verdict came in 2007.

Lawyers for the workers argued to the state Supreme Court on Monday that the company had been warned of the health dangers of the new glue and of the dangers of failing to provide adequate ventilation at its plant in Houston, Miss.

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The four worked at Franklin Corp. for varying lengths of time between 1999 and 2004.

The company is one of the largest privately owned furniture manufacturers in the United States, with about 1,200 workers.

Franklin’s attorney, James L. Robertson of Jackson, said the issues presented by the workers should have been presented to the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission as established under state law dating back 42 years.

“If you look at the record, you will not find anything close to actual intent to injure these four individuals,” said Robertson, a former Supreme Court justice. “The actual intent to injure the employee must be shown.”

Heber S. Simmons III of Ridgeland, representing the workers, said the court record also shows that Franklin ignored warnings about the dangers of the new glue it was using in the north Mississippi plant — even those from the Memphis, Tenn.-based manufacturer of the glue.

Simmons said Franklin ignored workers’ complaints of illness and declined to follow recommendations to properly ventilate rooms where the glue was used.

“This employer had actual knowledge of injury occurring,” Simmons said. “They knew what the warnings were. They knew what the dangers were. The facts of this case support the jury verdict.”

The four workers said they repeatedly asked management whether the adhesive they sprayed on foam cushioning was causing nausea, dizziness, laryngitis, coughing, headaches and other medical problems. They claimed the company ignored their questions.

A Calhoun County jury awarded damages totaling $9.5 million to Pauline Tedford and Lora Smith, both of Eupora, Judy Haire of Vardaman and Samantha Mixon of Houston, Miss.

A judge later reduced the amount to $3.76 million.

According to court documents, the company used Soft Seam Adhesive from 1999 until 2004. The glue, sold by Mid-South Adhesives Inc., contained a hazardous chemical known as propyl bromide.

The workers claimed they were directly exposed to Soft Seam Adhesive in enclosed booths without ventilation, respiratory protection, or eye or skin protection for 10-12 hours a day, court documents showed.