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Company Denies Its Weld Metal Is Unsafe

Courts: Firm says it will vigorously fight $1-billion suit charging that product caused widespread structural damage in Northridge quake.

January 25, 1997|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disputing charges by local building owners, the nation's largest maker of a widely used but possibly fracture-prone weld metal has denied allegations that its product exposed the public to "an unreasonable risk of danger" in steel-frame structures damaged in the Northridge earthquake.

The Lincoln Electric Co., in documents filed Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said it "intends to vigorously defend" itself against a class-action lawsuit charging that its product resulted in widespread structural damage in the January 1994 temblor. The lawsuit seeks more than $1 billion in damages.

Since the suit against the Cleveland-based company was made public Thursday, more than a dozen property owners throughout Los Angeles County have inquired about joining the litigation, the plaintiffs' lawyer said Friday.

"Most of them are in the Valley; many of them are in the Westside," attorney Kenneth R. Chiate said. "And some are in downtown Los Angeles."

Chiate declined to name the callers, saying only that they represent a cross-section of building owners, with properties ranging from towering office structures to smaller residential complexes. All were disturbed by allegations that a weld metal called E70T-4 is so weak in comparison to other such materials that the integrity of their buildings is in question.

The product has been banned from major construction work in the city of Los Angeles since July because of potential flaws. But Chiate said hundreds of steel-frame buildings erected before the 1994 quake used E70T-4, which is popular with contractors because it can be applied much more quickly than other weld metals, resulting in lower labor costs.

Lincoln Electric, the nation's biggest supplier of E70T-4, denied that its product is "inherently unsafe" in seismically sensitive areas, as the lawsuit alleges. In response to a previous case, the company's president said steel buildings held up adequately in the Northridge quake.

But cracks discovered in some steel-frame structures have led the Los Angeles City Council to require owners to inspect for damage and make repairs. The new lawsuit against Lincoln asks for $1 billion to compensate for inspection, retrofitting and repair costs, loss of business and diminished property values.

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