Hot Spots Flare Up, As Do Lawsuits Over Georgia Warehouse Fire

ATLANTA (AP) -- The rubble from a Conyers chemical fire was still hot as two firms began filing lawsuits on behalf of those inconvenienced or displaced by the toxic plume that shadowed the city.

Thousands were evacuated from the area around the BioLab warehouse after chlorine-tinged smoke tainted the sky and essentially put the city on hold. Firefighters battled the blaze for about two days, and area emergency rooms handled about 75 patients for smoke-related ailments and injuries.

BioLab has yet to cast blame. Spokesman Charlie McDonald said that BioLab visited the emergency shelters where about 570 evacuees took cover this week and attempted to settle any claims victims may have against the swimming pool-chemical company.

``We intend to make the community whole,'' McDonald said. ``It was our intention as soon as we had recognized we disrupted the lives of people in the area, it became our corporate position to make things right.''

McDonald said Friday afternoon that BioLab had already handled more than 2,000 claims.

But two of the lawyers responsible for three class-action suits against BioLab say the company is attempting to settle with victims while they're still shellshocked.

Birmingham, Ala.,-based attorney Lew Garrison and Decatur-based attorney Richard Kopelman have asked for a temporary restraining order that would forbid the company from settling with potential members of the class-action suits. A Wednesday hearing in Rockdale County, where the fire occurred, will determine if BioLab can continue settling.

``Nothing that we are doing prohibits them from taking legal action at a later point. Certainly, that's not our intention,'' McDonald said.

Garrison, who admittedly hasn't seen any settlement documents, is skeptical.

``I'm a little incredulous that BioLab would be giving money away out of the goodness of its heart without any protection from subsequent lawsuits,'' McDonald said, adding that BioLab's attempt to settle is ``apalling.''

McDonald insists BioLab has nothing but noble intentions and has even rented a meeting room in Conyers and set up a toll-free number so it can continue working with victims who lost wages, had their property damaged, suffered personal injury or had their business operations interrupted. BioLab is even working to rectify environmental damage, he said.

Those categories cover the likely subclasses in the lawsuit filed by Garrison's firm, which is teaming up with a Phoenix-based law firm that specializes in ``toxic torts,'' Garrison said. But Kopelman's suit, filed in Gwinnett County where BioLab is headquartered, is focused solely on property owners and business owners affected by the fire.

Kopelman said his firm has already had a ``tremendous response,'' and he's expecting hundreds of businesses and thousands of property owners to take part in the suit. Likewise, Garrison is expecting thousands to participate in his firm's class-action.

The evidence will show, Kopelman said, that there was some degree of negligence on BioLab's part, although ``even absent negligence, there's still a viable claim here.''

``We believe that once the dust is settled and the investigation is done that we'll find that it happened because someone did something wrong or didn't do something that should've been done,'' Kopelman said. ``Somebody wasn't careful enough.''