LANCASTER – More than 30 lawsuits blame Armstrong World Industries, once Lancaster’s largest employer, for exposing workers to chemicals that led to sickness, suffering and death. But they’ve been pursued by a lawyer who, a judge says, “made a mockery of the law” and whose clients are paying, figuratively and literally, for his actions.
This month, a Lancaster County judge took the remarkable step of disqualifying Pittsburgh-area attorney George Chada from his representation of former AWI workers and their families claiming brain damage and cancer from a solvent known as TCE. These lawsuits made local headlines but years later have barely progressed, instead becoming twisted into an issue of whether Chada was competently handling them.
The compensation the families are seeking is possibly as far away now as it was when their cases were filed – if they end up with anything at all.
And one woman, who in 2009 became the first to file and has assumed a leadership position among the plaintiffs, earlier this year paid the six-figure appeal bond on more than $120,000 in sanctions imposed by the court on Chada.
“The order on these sanctions would have put my attorney, George Chada, in a deposition as a witness for (defendant) Brenntag,” Sandra Cooper told the Pennsylvania Record in an email.
“He has been my attorney for 13 years. I have invested untold time and financial resources to preserve my cases, and to fight for some measure of justice for my family and the other workers.
“The only way to preserve my legal representation was to post an appeal bond, which I did. I was not coerced or asked to do this.”
Cooper lost her husband in 2014 when he died at the age of 58. They were married 37 years.
In that time, she says he was exposed to TCE while working at AWI, and the lawsuits allege a mixture known as “Safety Solvent” was used at the Lancaster facility despite its harmful effects on those who breathed its fumes.
(AWI is based in Lancaster, makes floors and ceilings and is one of several dozen companies forced into the bankruptcy system by asbestos lawsuits.)
In Chada’s complaints, he says Safety Solvent was a blend of three organic solvents developed by AWI, but at the same time alleges Brenntag made it. The company eventually asked the court to sanction Chada for suing it when he had no reason to think Brenntag made or sold Safety Solvent.
Further, Chada should have known workers used a product called Solvesso, made by a different company, to clean up a 2003 spill at AWI, Brenntag said. That spill is the basis of four of the lawsuits.
Sanctions were granted against Chada on this issue, but there were many, many more problems. They’re all laid out in a 35-page document that asked Chada to show why he should not be disqualified from the lawsuits.
Chada, through West Chester lawyer Jake Becker, motioned for Judge Leonard Brown to recuse himself from the cases. Attached were emails from four clients who still believed Chada was suitably representing them:
-Cooper: “In reviewing Judge Brown’s rulings, I have come to believe that they are incorrect. Please use this email as affirmation of my desire to continue with George Chada as my counsel.”
-Michael and Carolyn Lynch: “We disagree with the actions taken by Judge Brown and wish to continue retaining George Chada as our attorneys in matters relating to our lawsuit against Brenntag and Armstrong World Industries.”
-Shawn and Lori Patterson: “Shawn and I believe that Judge Brown’s rulings are incorrect. We would like George Chada to remain as our attorney for the duration of this case. (We) believe he is quite a competent and able representative.”
-Judy Wendler: “I believe the judge’s rulings to be wrong, and I still wish to have George Chada as my attorney.”
But Judge Brown wasn’t persuaded and didn’t hold back in his Aug. 28 order, using words like “incompetent,” “frivolous” and “dishonest.”
Chada’s behavior included filing duplicative documents in some cases while failing to file documents in others, submitting untimely briefs and incorrectly citing precedent, as well as:
-Filing a motion to find a defendant in contempt of a stay, even though no stay had been entered;
-Adding additional defendants without getting permission;
-Continuing to file claims for secondary exposure, fraudulent misrepresentation and intentional spoliation, even though those claims had been struck from four model cases in September; and
-Serially filing amended complaints without permission from the court while ignoring court directions to remove certain claims, denying AWI and Brenntag the chance to have their defenses ruled on.
Brenntag and AWI weren’t the only ones harmed by this – “Chada’s practice also had the effect of prolonging the litigation to the detriment of his clients,” Judge Brown wrote.
Eight years after the case started, Chada filed a second amended complaint on Cooper’s behalf in 2017.
Months later, the amount of sanctions entered against him was $126,434.23. Cooper paid the $151,721.08 to the court as an appeal bond for him, plus an extra $8,000 that seems to be the product of a miscalculation.
Chada had appeared in court on June 8 to assure Judge Brown he would be posting the appeal bond that day but was waiting on deposits to be credited to one of his “operating accounts.”
A month later, he filed two more lawsuits, still naming Brenntag as a defendant even though he had been sanctioned in January for pursuing claims against that company.
His newest lawsuits charge the law firm Barley Snyder with the destruction of AWI’s employee exposure and medical records.
“Attorney Chada continues to file new complaints containing claims already rejected by the court,” Judge Brown wrote.
He added that having Cooper pay his appeal bond (plus that extra $8,000) creates a conflict of interest.
“In his answer, attorney Chada replied: ‘It is specifically denied that any client of Mr. Chada paid more money than required.’ He offered no further explanation,” Judge Brown wrote.
“Attorney Chada’s conduct has made it impossible for the parties in these cases – plaintiffs and defendants – to receive the fair (trial) due process requires. Defendants continue to face claims not viable under Pennsylvania law, as attorney Chada ignores court orders.
“They continue to face uncertainty as to the nature of the claims brought against them, given attorney Chada’s confusing pleading practice and inability or unwillingness to abide by them model case agreement.”