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Southland Tear Gas Firm Sued Over Mideast Deaths : Litigation: Suit claims Sherman Oaks company knew chemical was used recklessly by Israeli forces.

December 20, 1991|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Sherman Oaks company was accused in a federal lawsuit Thursday of being responsible for the deaths of eight Palestinians exposed to the firm's tear gas in Israeli-occupied territories.

The suit, filed in Pittsburgh, Pa., federal court, charges that TransTechnology of Sherman Oaks and its Pennsylvania manufacturing unit sold CS gas to Israel despite their knowledge that the Israeli military was using their product recklessly, resulting in multiple civilian deaths.

"TransTechnology and Federal Laboratories are guilty of the worst kind of negligence and indifference, the kind that results in the deaths of innocent people," said Beth Stephens of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York public interest law firm that is representing the plaintiffs.

The suit also contends that CS gas is a chemical weapon which should be banned. "CS gas is a toxic substance which is highly dangerous to people who inhale its fumes," Stephens said.

Robert Tunno, president of Saltsburg, Pa.-based Federal Laboratories, the nation's largest manufacturer of tear gas, said the firm would not comment on the suit.

But Tunno said in a statement that "tear gas is a chemical agent specifically designed for crowd control and, when properly used, is a highly effective, non-lethal method of dispersing large groups of people and is an established alternative to the use of deadly force."

However, a promotional brochure distributed by Federal Laboratories states that CS gas "can indeed cause death" if improperly used.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have issued reports charging Israeli Defense forces with misusing CS gas since the intifada began in December, 1987.

The reports state that the gas is used frequently and for purposes beyond riot control. Amnesty has said Israeli forces often fire tear gas into confined or indoor areas, including hospitals and schools, that make it much more hazardous.

The gas "is particularly dangerous when used in massive quantities in heavily built-up and populated areas, as has been the case with the refugee camps in the Occupied Territories, or when launched directly into homes or other buildings," according to an Amnesty report issued in October.

Amnesty officials said 80 deaths in the Occupied Territories were attributable to tear gas exposures.

In April, 1988, TransTechnology suspended sales of the gas to Israel after public protests about misuse of CS by Israeli Defense Forces. But the company resumed sales four months later, saying it had assurances from Israeli officials that the gas was being used properly.

Medical studies of CS gas have noted that immediate symptoms after exposure include burning and blistering of the skin, headaches, burning of the eyes, nose, tongue and throat, tightness of the chest, vomiting and a feeling of suffocation. Palestinian physicians have also blamed the substance for thousands of miscarriages.

Dr. Howard Hu, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, a tear gas expert, said in an interview that CS is particularly dangerous for people with heart or lung disease.

Hu said that he had reviewed files about the eight people whose deaths are the subject of the federal lawsuit. He said that those records indicated that tear gas exposure caused their deaths.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs, all of whom live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the East Jerusalem area. They are the surviving spouses or children of the victims, most of whom had large families.

Stephens said the case was being filed in the United States "because we're suing the manufacturer, we're not suing Israel."

Only one of the plaintiffs, Rihab Essawi, a West Bank resident, is a U.S. citizen.

Her mother, Fatima Essawi, was killed on June 29, 1990, according to the suit, after a CS gas canister manufactured by Federal Laboratories landed in the enclosed porch outside a window of her Jerusalem area home "and filled the (living) room with its fumes."

The suit states that Essawi, 68, immediately experienced breathing difficulty, and began to retch and foam at the mouth. While her daughter drove her to the hospital, she turned blue and 40 minutes after arriving at the hospital, she was pronounced dead.

Another victim was Mohammed Abed Ahmad Mash'al, 47, a father of eight, who died on May 22, 1990, after walking through a tear-gas infested area to his home in Jabal Mukalber, according to the suit. A death certificate states "history of tear gas inhalation" as the reason for death.

"The principle involved in this case is that U.S. companies should be held liable when they knowingly aid in the the commission of human rights abuses--wherever those abuses occur," said University of Pittsburgh international law professor Jules Lobel, another of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

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