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Wrongful-Death Suit Filed Against Miller Brewery : Health: Wife of former worker claims that policy allowing drinking at job site led to husband's death from liver disease.

August 11, 1994|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The widow of a 50-year-old Glendora man who died last year of complications from alcoholic liver disease has filed a lawsuit against his employer of 17 years, Miller Brewing Co. in Irwindale, which used to allow employees to drink on the premises.

Janice Hurst, 50, says her husband, Thomas, who died June 21, 1993, became an alcoholic because the brewery encouraged its employees to drink beer during breaks and at lunch, gave them free beer at Christmas and on their birthdays and provided cases of beer at discounted prices.

"They condoned it and they expected me to handle it," Hurst said. "He would be here today if he had never gotten that job to begin with."

The wrongful-death lawsuit, filed June 10 in Pomona Superior Court, also alleges that Miller Brewing Co. violated California health and safety laws that prohibit employers from knowingly and without warning exposing their workers to toxic substances.

Representatives of the brewery in Irwindale declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Dianne Markut, a spokeswoman at the company's headquarters in Milwaukee.

But Markut did say that Miller for many years was concerned about on-the-premises employee consumption of alcohol, even though free beer was regarded as a job benefit. The brewery was one of the industry leaders seeking to change the policy, Markut said.

Hurst said the change came too late for her husband. By the time the Irwindale plant banned on-the-premises drinking in 1990, Thomas Hurst had developed liver disease and had only 10% of normal liver capacity. A back injury on the job in 1993 led to his hospitalization and death three days later from a blood infection when his impaired liver could not filter out the toxins, his wife said.

Hurst's attorney, Russell Thomas of Santa Ana, said he believes the lawsuit is the first of its kind filed in California.

In 1978, Irene Dueweke, widow of brewery employee Richard Dueweke, sought $100,000 from the Stroh's brewery in Detroit, alleging that her husband's death was related to alcoholism caused by the free beer given him at his job. Dueweke's claim was later rejected, said Lacey Logan, a Stroh's spokeswoman.

But that case and lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving made major brewery companies concerned about possible lawsuits from employees. In the mid-1980s, they began abolishing drinking on the premises.

Now, only Coors in Golden, Colo., and a handful of micro-breweries still permit workers to drink on the job. Coors is reviewing its policy after an accident March 11 in which employee Alfredo Rodriguez, 55, died after he drove his car at 70 m.p.h. into a post at the brewery. Rodriguez' blood alcohol level was 0.319, three times higher than the state's drunk-driving limit.

Despite policies forbidding on-site drinking, many breweries still provide beer at discount prices to employees, but Miller spokesman Victor Franco in Irwindale said that that particular plant does not do so. Employees can buy up to four cases a week at the company store, he said, but pay prices that are often higher than they could find at retail outlets.

The company still provides a free case of beer on each employee's birthday, Franco said.

Ron Beitman, a Massachusetts attorney who has focused on cases involving alcohol-related injuries and illnesses, said that most product liability cases against the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages fail because the dangers of drinking to excess are well known and considered the responsibility of the drinker. However, if an employer openly tolerated and fostered regular drinking in the workplace, and if discounted beer were an employee benefit, that would give the case more clout, he said.

After the onset of his disease, Hurst, a former bottler, was put to work picking up cans in the parking lot, mopping stairs and other duties, his wife said. While engaged in those tasks, he got caught in a piece of machinery and injured his back on June 18, 1993, she said.

Before his brewery job, her husband worked as a salesman and consumed alcohol but not excessively, Janice Hurst said. After working for years at Miller plants in Azusa and Irwindale, her husband drank a case of beer a day, she said.

The company looked the other way when workers filched beer from the production lines, let them drink at lunch and breaks, allowed them to purchase at discount prices four cases of beer monthly and gave them a case of beer at Christmas and on birthdays, she said. As a result, her husband came home drunk nearly every day after work, passed out numerous times on the job, drank after work in the parking lot, drove drunk and was convicted of drunken driving, Hurst said. He was deaf to her complaints about his drinking, she added.

"My husband wanted to drink all the time," she said. "He just couldn't get his fill."

In 1990, after he was sent to an alcohol rehabilitation program paid for by the brewing company, he stopped drinking, Hurst said. But by that time, his liver was severely damaged. He also appeared to have suffered brain damage and he was relieved of his bottling job at the plant, she said.

Hurst said that after her husband's death, she found a photograph of him taken at work, pulling on his work shoes with a can of Miller beer beside him.

"I had it blown up . . . and I gave it to my (adult) children and said, 'Don't drink like that,' " she said. "It's just an awful thing to watch somebody go through that and watch them die from liquor like that."

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