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Court drops case of Alabama leukemia victimís widow

WASHINGTON (AP) — The widow of a leukemia victim failed to persuade the Supreme Court on Monday to consider allowing her to sue oil companies over her husband's exposure to a toxic chemical, a case her lawyer calls a legal "Catch 22" in Alabama.

The justices without comment declined to take up the case of Martha Jane Cline, who is trying to hold the companies accountable for her late husband's health problems. Jack Cline, of Vance died in January.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that he waited too long to sue, even though Cline didn't know he was sick until after the deadline to sue had passed. Cline's attorney, Robert 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.

Alabama courts have held there is a two-year window period 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. There was never a time when Cline, a longtime chemist who blamed exposure to benzene for his illness, could have filed suit because the two-year deadline passed in 1989 and he wasn't diagnosed with the disease until 1999.

Jack Cline sued Ashland Inc., Chevron Phillips Chemical and Exxon Mobil over exposure to benzene, but state courts threw out the lawsuit.

Barred from filling suit

Palmer, a lawyer in Birmingham, said the decision means people injured by exposure to hazardous chemicals in Alabama are virtually barred from filing suit since many illnesses take years to develop. He accused the all-Republican state court that ruled against him of "judicial activism" to protect corporations.

"It's a Catch-22," said Palmer. "The plaintiff is in a situation where he can't bring suit until he is sick, but by the time he is sick it is too late to bring it."

A lawyer representing corporations sued by Cline said the Supreme Court had to perform a balancing act between protecting the rights of injured people and corporations, which could be forced to defend against decades-old claims that aren't made until years after an alleged injury occurred.

"Where do you draw the line? Do you favor the plaintiff and just let them file suit at any time?" said attorney George Walker of Mobile, representing Ashland and the other companies. Cline also lacked evidence linking his disease to benzene exposure, he said.

Lawyers for Cline argued the Supreme Court should take up the case because it has long held that people must be given a reasonable amount of time to sue.

The case is Cline v. Ashland Inc., 06-1329.

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

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