Angelos files class actions against cell phone firms

Baltimore lawyer would force industry to provide headsets

April 20, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Escalating attacks on the nation's wireless industry, Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos filed class action lawsuits in Maryland and three other states yesterday to force cellular phone companies to pay for headsets that could protect users from possible radiation hazards.

The lawsuits charge that the wireless industry has known about potential health risks associated with cell phones for years but failed to warn customers, even as the number of Americans using the popular devices has topped 100 million.

Angelos, famous for his multimillion-dollar lawsuits against asbestos makers, lead paint manufacturers and the tobacco industry, said the latest filings seek to prevent potential health problems for cell phone users.

"Use the earpiece, and you avoid the hazard," Angelos said. "And if we get that far at least, the public knows that the potential hazard exists, and they know a way to avoid that potential."

Cell phone makers sharply dispute such claims, which have been raised in lawsuits across the country in recent years - including other cases in which Angelos' firm is involved. The industry insists that there is no scientific evidence to support the litigation.

Agencies of the federal government are studying the issue but have not definitively ruled on cell phone safety.

Wireless companies say their products are safe to use with or without headsets, which allow users to talk on cell phones without holding the gadgets close to their heads.

Norman D. Sandler, director of global strategic issues for wireless company Motorola Inc., said in an interview yesterday that there is "no credible scientific evidence to support the notion of health risks associated with the use of cellular phones."

Sandler said his company, one of 25 defendants in the Angelos suit filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, had not been served with a copy of the complaint and he could not respond directly.

But Sandler said the only reason a cell phone user might want to use a headset is for convenience, to free up the hands while driving or shopping, for instance.

"Is there any health-related reason to use headsets? The answer is no," Sandler said.

Other companies named in the lawsuit include industry leaders Ericsson, Sprint PCS, Nextel, AT&T and Verizon. Two Baltimore-area residents are named as plaintiffs in the Maryland case - Towson pediatrician J. Douglas Pinney and Patricia S. Colonell of Glen Arm. Neither is claiming to have a health problem caused by cell phones but want the companies to pay for headsets.

Angelos is seeking to have the lawsuit certified as a class action, which means that potentially all current and future cell phone users in Maryland could be part of the case. The complaint did not speculate how many people that might include.

Angelos also said he did not know how much it could cost the industry to provide headsets - which sell for $20 to $100 - for every wireless phone user in the state.

The lawsuit also seeks unspecified punitive damages.

In addition to the Maryland case, Angelos' firm was involved in preparing similar lawsuits filed yesterday in state courts in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Another class-action case pending in U.S. District Court in Louisiana seeks to force cellular companies to pay for headsets - as well as medical monitoring - for roughly half of the nation's wireless phone users. Angelos also is involved in that litigation.

Those cases have followed a rash of personal injury cases in which individuals have claimed that their cell phone habits led to cancer. The first such case surfaced seven years ago in Florida, where a man claimed cellular phone use caused his wife's fatal brain tumor. That case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but others have followed.

Pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore is an $800 million lawsuit filed by Christopher J. Newman, 41, a Jarrettsville neurologist, who charges that his frequent wireless phone use in the 1990s caused his life-threatening brain tumor. Angelos' firm joined that case in January.

The complaints filed yesterday raise product liability and consumer protection claims. Angelos is not seeking to prove the electromagnetic radiation that cellular phones emit causes specific health problems, such as cancer - only that the industry was aware of a risk and failed to take steps to warn consumers.

The lawsuit alleges that providing headsets would have minimized potential hazards, saying companies "refused to take this simple step to reduce the health risks of consumers for fear that such action would inhibit their ability to mass market [wireless phones] to the consuming public."

Questions about possible health risks from cellular phones are far from settled. Industry officials point to recent studies of brain cancer patients that failed to detect any link with cell phone use. The latest, published in February, found no higher rates of brain or other cancers among more than 400,000 mobile phone users in Denmark.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which helps oversee product safety for the federal government, has called for more research, saying it is unable to conclude that cell phones are either unsafe or entirely safe.

The agency has said it has found no scientific evidence of health problems in humans, but points to a few studies that have shown increased cancer in laboratory mice exposed to mobile-phone radiation.

FDA officials agreed to continue studying the issue. The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, also is preparing a cell phone safety report, which is expected to be completed next month.

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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