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Judge rules $100M suit by former workers against Brookhaven Laboratory can proceed

Defendants in the case against Brookhaven National Laboratory

Defendants in the case against Brookhaven National Laboratory include the current and former operators of the lab; the federal Department of Energy, which owns the lab; and cleaner manufacturers Zep Inc. and Dow Chemical. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit filed by former Brookhaven National Laboratory workers who say they were sickened by cleaning fluids at the Upton facility may go forward.

U.S. District Judge Gary R. Brown in Central Islip, writing in a Dec. 21 decision, threw out some of the workers’ allegations but said there was sufficient evidence to show lab officials may have been aware that fluids used to clean computers and other equipment contained potentially dangerous levels of trichloroethylene, a carcinogen.

"These allegations ... provide a disturbing and comprehensive chronicle of dangerous actions and inaction in this regard," Brown wrote.

The lawsuit, filed last year by Joseph Marino of Central Islip, who was later joined by three other former lab workers, alleges that the plaintiffs contracted cancer from trichloroethylene, or TCE, while working for the lab or for maintenance contractors at the federal facility. Each of the plaintiffs is seeking $25 million in damages.

The defendants include the current and former operators of the lab, which is owned by the Department of Energy, and cleaner manufacturers Zep Inc. and Dow Chemical.

A lab spokesman declined to comment. Dow Chemical did not respond to a request for comment. Efforts to reach Zep Inc. were unsuccessful.

TCE is not banned, but some manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using it.

The defendants had asked Brown to dismiss the case on the grounds that the government was exempt from such lawsuits and that the statute of limitations had expired. Brown rejected those arguments.

Brown also dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that the lab had engaged in "abnormally dangerous or ultrahazardous activities."

The parties are to hold a telephone conference with the judge on Feb. 18, said Joseph Lanni, a Manhattan lawyer for the former employees.

Marino, 62, said he was "absolutely ecstatic" about Brown’s ruling. Marino said he contracted kidney cancer from working for a contractor that cleaned computer equipment at the lab.

"It’s incredible," Marino said of Brown’s decision. "The rulings that he made are absolutely phenomenal, and he sees the defendants for what they are and what they’re trying to do."

The other plaintiffs are Ron Yuhas of Coram, a former lab telecommunications manager, and two former computer operators and technicians, Ruth Faine and Frank Devito. The hometowns of Faine and Devito were not available.

Marino said he and the other plaintiffs have endured several health setbacks, including battling kidney disease, undergoing a kidney transplant and requiring dialysis and that they avoid people to lessen the chances that they will contract COVID-19. Marino said his kidney disease and a compromised immune system leave him especially vulnerable to the virus.

"All we can really do is be very careful and stay away from places and people," he said. "It’s not an ideal life, but it’s life and it’s better than dying."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the Department of Energy as a defendant in the lawsuit. In addition, the story mischaracterized the health condition of the plaintiffs, all of whom have kidney disease and some of whom have had a kidney transplant or require dialysis.

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