PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - A groundbreaking civil case involving the long-time groundskeeper and superintendent at a local golf course will proceed for now, thanks to a ruling by a panel of state Superior Court judges.
The case is being brought by the family of Thomas Walsh, who died 10 years ago at age 56 of leukemia. He spent much of his career maintaining golf course greens, tees and fairways using powerful pesticides.
Walsh is the father of KDKA sports anchor Rich Walsh, who along with his family, is suing several major chemical companies claiming that Mr. Walsh's leukemia was caused by chemical exposure.
At issue in today's ruling was whether the Walsh family's medical experts will be allowed to testify at trial. The trial court judge ruled a year ago that the family's experts should not be allowed to testify. A panel of three Superior Court judges reversed that opinion, allowing the suit to proceed with the expert testimony.
"That's critical to establish a case, to have an expert say the pesticides caused the leukemia," said Walsh family attorney Tony D'Amico.
"In order to establish what we call a prima facie case, we have to show that the pesticides that Mr. Walsh worked with were a substantial, contributing factor in causing Mr. Walsh's AML or Acute Myelogenous Leukemia," said D'Amico. "That is a medical issue, so we need a medical doctor to render that opinion."
According to D'Amico, the case is landmark.
He says there are other cases around the country that raise the issue of the toxicity of individual pesticides and their ability to cause disease in humans. But, as far as he knows, this is the first of its type in Pennsylvania, and perhaps the first in the nation to question what happens when a human is exposed to multiple pesticides.
"Our case deals with a 'cocktail' of multiple poisons: fungicides, pesticides, herbicides (Mr. Walsh) used," D'Amico said. "The toxicity of those pesticides coming together, I don't know of any other cases like that."
D'Amico says what also makes their case unique is the fact that Thomas Walsh kept meticulous records.
"Mr. Walsh during his career kept calendars of what he was using day-to-day, which were very significant in us helping to establish our burden which is exposure to the various pesticides," he said.
D'Amico says it's not clear yet how and when the case will proceed. The chemical companies could appeal the state Superior Court ruling in one of two ways, either by having the full Superior Court consider the issue of expert testimony, or by taking the issue straight to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which could choose to hear the case or refuse to consider it.
The defendants could also choose not to appeal, according to D'Amico, sending it automatically back to the Allegheny County trial courts system for additional motions and scheduling for trial.
As for the chemical companies, in an October 2015 story on the lawsuit, KDKA Investigator Andy Sheehan reported the following statement as "representative" of the statements from those companies that did respond:
"While we sympathize with Mr. Walsh's concerns, there is no evidence that the BASF product mentioned in this suit is capable of causing Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. Ten of the claims against BASF in this case have already been dismissed by the court. We are confident that the remaining claims will also be dismissed by the court based on the lack of scientific support presented by Mr. Walsh and his attorneys."
Rich Walsh said in the 2015 story that his family is willing to take that risk.
"I know everyone goes through loses. I get that, But, [my dad] was 56 years old and I know these chemicals had something to do with it. I lost my dad. I lost my best friend, and I lost my golf partner, too," he said.
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