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Alcohol on Trial : A First-of-Its-Kind Case Looks at Who Should Pay Price for Mother's Drinking

May 04, 1989|JONI H. BLACKMAN | Blackman is a free-lance writer who lives in Seattle

SEATTLE — Harold Thorp, a short, stout 66-year-old alcoholic, fought a losing battle with tears on the witness stand when asked recently: Would he have let his pregnant wife drink as much as a half a fifth of Jim Beam bourbon daily, if he had known that alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects?

"No, there would have been no drinking at my home," he replied. "How could anyone deliberately destroy their own loved one? That's an asinine idea.

Longed for a Child

"I wanted this baby--I loved this baby. You'd be killing your youngster. Absolutely not, there wouldn't have been a drop in my house," said the graying, bespectacled man, his words forceful but punctuated with choked tears.

After a 25-year, childless marriage to another woman, Thorp had longed for a child so much that he had asked Candance (Candy) Pedersen--a 34-year-old alcoholic and mother of two--to bear him a child just one month after meeting her in a bar in February, 1984. She agreed and got pregnant almost immediately.

But almost two years after Michael Thorp was born on Dec. 28, 1984, physicians told the couple that their boy, who has deformities and mild retardation, had suffered Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. They were told it was caused by Candy's drinking during her pregnancy of up to half a fifth of bourbon a day, bouts of consumption in which she sometimes drank herself unconscious. The Thorps now claim they were shocked and surprised by the diagnosis because they had never heard that alcohol could harm an unborn child.

In November, 1987, they filed a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit against the James B. Beam Distillery seeking lifetime support for their son.

In their suit, the Thorps have asserted that Beam has known for years about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and should have labeled its products with a warning to pregnant women of potential harmful effects.

The distiller, refusing to acknowledge a link between alcohol and birth defects, has countered that no warning would dissuade an alcoholic from drinking its product.

The Thorp case, which began April 24 and is expected to take three to four weeks to present, is the first such case of its kind in the nation, according to experts, some of whom have likened it to landmark litigation seeking to hold tobacco manufacturers liable for harm from use of their products.

But two other almost identical alcohol cases soon will follow: one will be heard later this month in Olympia, Wash.; another is scheduled in federal district court in Seattle early next year.

It is no surprise that Washington state has become the center of this sweeping new concern about American women and alcoholic beverage manufacturers.

The University of Washington is where a team of doctors in 1973 identified the link between alcohol use and birth defects, an affliction they labeled Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the most serious manifestation of what can happen when mothers drink, though researchers estimate that 40,000 American babies each year suffer some damage from their mother's alcohol use.

The university also is where lawyers turned to researchers when they were seeking potential clients for damage suits aimed at addressing the harm that is believed to be caused by the syndrome.

That the Thorps might be unlikely plaintiffs for a pathfinding case does not trouble many of the people interested in their suit. Instead, they assert that what happened to the couple should be a lesson to all women of child-bearing age.

Because the matter now is in court, the Thorps, their attorneys and the distiller's lawyers have declined to comment on the case. But thousands of pages of court documents draw a stark picture of the sad lives of an alcoholic couple and their child, who now requires speech, occupational and physical therapy.

From the time Candance Thorp can remember, her mother and father regularly drank alcohol, she said in the sworn statements.

Her father, she noted, often beat her two brothers after a night of drinking.

Her mother usually drank Jim Beam with 7-Up--the first drink that Candy would stir for herself at age 22. It was the mix she stuck with for 17 years, though she eventually substituted water for the soda.

"At times it got heavier, at times it lightened up," Candy said of her drinking.

A short, heavyset woman with wavy light brown hair that hangs just past her shoulders, she has been married three times.

Her first husband was Bob Ashcroft, a serviceman with whom she had her first child, Terri, in 1969. She later divorced Ashcroft and married David Pedersen, a wood products salesman.

Though her daughter Terri ended up living with her father, Pedersen supported Rebecca, the second daughter Candy had in 1979 with a man she has refused to name; she put the surname Lohse on the girl's birth certificate because "we had been dating and he said if I wanted to use his last name, I could," she said in her sworn statement.

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