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Widow of Worker Sues Foam Factory

July 27, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

The widow of a factory worker alleges in a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court that her 36-year-old husband died from long-term exposure to a deadly chemical at the world's largest manufacturer of surfboard blanks.

The wrongful-death suit filed last week against Clark Foam Products provides a partial explanation for the Laguna Niguel company's abrupt closure in December.

In legal papers, Maria Teresa Barriga claims that her husband, Martin Barriga, and other employees ran with open buckets of toxic toluene diisocyanate sloshing on their hands, arms, torso, legs and feet.

During lunch breaks, Barriga and other workers warmed their meals in the same microwave used to heat the chemical, the suit alleges.

Toluene diisocyanate, known as TDI, is commonly used to make foam products and paint. When heated, the chemical becomes toxic and can cause severe respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous system problems. It is also a possible carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Barriga's death certificate lists cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, inflamed and scarred lung sacs and arterial inflammation as causes of death. A biopsy showed that he also suffered from a cancerous chest tumor.

Clark Foam founder Gordon Clark, also named in the suit, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But he had alluded to the possibility of litigation in a five-page letter addressed to his customers Dec. 5, the day his business closed.

He said excessive government regulation and pending lawsuits -- including one by a widow of an employee "who died from cancer" -- had forced him to shutter Clark Foam. Because his factory had been making 9 out of 10 surfboard blanks in the world, the move sent the price of boards skyrocketing for months.

"Our official safety record as an employer is not very good," Clark wrote in his only public statement. "We have three ex-employees on full workman's compensation disability -- evidently for life. I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits and even time in prison."

Maria Teresa Barriga said in an interview this week that her husband was a model family man, an avid soccer player and reliable breadwinner who held his $14-an-hour Clark Foam job for 16 years. She said the curly-haired Mexican immigrant who lived in San Juan Capistrano hid the extent of his health problems from her.

His death "was a terrible surprise," said the tearful mother of two boys, ages 4 and 11. "I could not imagine he would die. It isn't fair. I need him here."

Barriga attorney John McCarty of Irvine said the family "knew he was sick but they didn't know the extent of it. He wanted to protect them."

In 2002, Barriga quit his job at Clark to become a truck driver, saying he was tired of his work routine. His wife says she believes now that he was trying to get away from the chemicals.

Martin Barriga stopped playing soccer in 2003 because he had trouble breathing and instead coached children and refereed adults. He made light of his frequent bloody noses and the blood in his mouth, his wife said.

Maria Teresa Barriga, who works as a maid in San Juan Capistrano, turned to an attorney with the encouragement and help of her employer, Michelle Barth.

"Every day, he seemed to have a different health problem," Barth said. "It was something no one could put together. Nothing made sense. He took very good care of himself and was very athletic."

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount for damages. Even though Clark Foam has closed, money could be paid from profits or insurance, McCarty said.

In any case, the widow says she wants company executives to be held accountable.

"What I'm hoping for this lawsuit more than anything are answers," she said. "I want to know how [company executives] could have done this."

Clark Foam was founded after Clark and surfboard maker Hobie Alter discovered a process in the late 1950s to mass-produce lightweight foam-and-fiberglass surfboards instead of heavier boards made from balsa wood.

The technique helped spark the rise of the modern surfing culture, and Clark maintained a near-monopoly on the surfboard blank industry for four decades.

But Clark Foam abruptly closed after 44 years in business in late 2005, when Clark wrote a letter to customers outlining his long and increasingly expensive battle to meet government regulations over 25 years.

He said that "about 20 years ago," Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors "came down on our TDI use very hard and more or less tied one arm behind our back."

OSHA officials said Wednesday that they hadn't inspected Clark Foam since 1990. But Clark said he continued to struggle to meet tighter standards of other regulatory agencies.

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