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Man dies after long court fight over chemical contamination

VANCE (AP) — A man who waged a court fight to blame a toxic chemical for his health problems died just days after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled he waited too long to sue, even though he didn't know he was sick until after the deadline to sue had passed.

Jack Cline, who was 67, died Wednesday of complications from a rare form of leukemia that had prompted his suit, family members said Thursday.

Cline, of Vance in Tuscaloosa County, died less than two weeks after he learned that the justices, on a 5-4 vote, had affirmed their earlier decision that he could not collect on his claim over exposure to benzene, a chemical he worked with during his long career as a chemist.

Alabama courts have held there is a two-year window to file a lawsuit from the last exposure to toxic chemicals, but they also have held there must be an injury before a lawsuit is filed. Cline's attorney, Robert Palmer, said there was never a time when Cline could have filed suit because the two-year deadline passed in 1989 and he wasn't diagnosed with the disease until 1999.

Palmer, who has filed many suits in other states over exposure to toxic chemicals, said all other states have a time limit that begins when a person learns of an illness, not at the time of last exposure.

Palmer, who called the ruling "one of the worst decisions the Alabama Supreme Court has ever made," said Thursday he will ask the Alabama Supreme Court to waive its rule against a second rehearing request and try to get the justices to take one more look at the case.

Palmer said he would also appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court based on federal due process issues.

In an interview last year with The Associated Press, Cline said that when he was diagnosed in 1999 with acute myelogenous leukemia, an illness linked to radiation or benzene exposure, doctors gave him three months to live.

"God has left me alive to do something. I've been fighting this case since 2000," Cline said at the time.

He sued Ashland Inc., Chevron Phillips Chemical and Exxon Mobil over exposure to benzene.

A state judge in Birmingham ruled he waited too long to file the complaint, and the Supreme Court agreed.

The justices agreed to take another look at the case, but then decided Jan. 5 against changing the previous ruling.

Justice Harold See, writing for the majority, said it would be up to the Legislature to change the law regarding the time frame when a suit may be filed.

Bills to change the time frame encountered strong opposition in the Legislature in recent years. Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, a group that pushes for restrictions on lawsuits, cited Cline's suit as an example of "trial lawyer greed."

Cline's wife, Jane, said her husband had checked into the hospital on Dec. 20 for another round of chemotherapy. Palmer informed Cline of the court's decision while in the hospital, and Mrs. Cline told the Press-Register her husband had a hard time accepting the ruling.

"It was a blow. ... It hurt, because he's fought for that so much," she said. "I think that's really what he was living for."

Defense lawyer George Walker, representing the companies that Cline sued, said he was confident the state ruling ended the issue.

"I don't think there are any federal constitutional issues that have been raised that the U.S. Supreme Court would take," said Walker, who expressed condolences to Cline's family.

Cline's funeral was scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Curry-Jefferson Funeral Home in Hoover.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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