Class-action status approved for workers at former state building

A judge granted class-action status this week to a lawsuit that claims contaminants sickened current and former state workers when the Louisiana Department of Revenue was housed for 20-plus years at the old Sears building on Florida Boulevard.

Lewis Unglesby, an attorney for the five named plaintiffs, said Thursday he hopes state District Judge Janice Clark’s ruling will encourage the state and Olshan-WS Associates — which owned the old Sears facility and leased it to the revenue department from 1979 until 2001 — to enter into serious settlement talks with the plaintiffs.

Class-action suits are typically filed when a group of people have similar injuries or seek damages from the same event or series of events.

Nearly 300 current and former state employees have filled out forms complaining of health problems allegedly associated with the old Sears building, Unglesby said last year while Clark was conducting a class-action certification hearing.

“I think it (the class) will be higher than that (300). Those are the ones who came forward initially,” he said Thursday. “You would anticipate it would expand.”

Several present and former employees testified at the hearing that their exposure to contaminants resulted in respiratory problems, asthma and allergy-like symptoms such as runny noses, itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, coughing and headaches.

Attorneys for the state and Olshan-WS Associates objected to any class-action certification, arguing at the hearing there is not a commonality of causation for the alleged injuries. Those attorneys contend smoking, workplace and household dust, and other things could have caused the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs.

Clark issued her ruling Wednesday, saying class-action certification was “well founded.”

Attorneys for the state and Olshan-WS Associates could not be reached for comment on the judge’s decision and whether they will appeal it.