One of the first McCullom Lake brain cancer plaintiffs dies

Death comes just after first litigant gets new trial

Kurt Weisenberger was a resident of McCollum Lake for 26 years.
Kurt Weisenberger was a resident of McCollum Lake for 26 years.

WONDER LAKE – Whenever Kurt Weisenberger's son tested his patience by coming home late, dad would warn that he had one good fight left in him.

Weisenberger's biggest fight turned out to be the tumor that grew in his brain. The Mayo Clinic gave him two years to live after his 1998 diagnosis. He fought for 15 years.

But Weisenberger's fight ended early Friday with his death at age 72. His health rapidly declined after an emergency surgery in July to remove the tumor, which had more than doubled in size. One of the original three McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuit plaintiffs, he died barely a day after a Pennsylvania appeals court, after 2 1/2 years, overturned a verdict dismissing the first of the cases to go to trial.

Weisenberger and two of his former next-door neighbors in McCullom Lake, also diagnosed with brain cancer, were the first of 33 to file lawsuits claiming that pollution from the Rohm and Haas specialty chemical plant in neighboring Ringwood made them sick with brain and pituitary tumors.

His wife, Joanne, told him of the verdict just before his death, but he couldn't respond, said his son, Jason. His father had been on home hospice care for the past week.

"We think he understood. He didn't have much strength left, but we think he understood," Jason Weisenberger said.

The lawsuits allege that carcinogenic vinyl chloride and other volatile organic compounds from the plant's operations fouled residents' air and groundwater.

While Rohm and Haas acknowledges that a plume of industrial waste has leaked into groundwater from decades of dumping by the previous owners into an unlined 8-acre waste pit, it vehemently denies allegations that chemicals reached or sickened residents. Past and present owners have been working for the past two decades to clean up the contamination plume.

Doctors diagnosed Weisenberger with oligodendroglioma, a brain tumor found in about one person per 300,000. Doctors diagnosed his former McCullom Lake next-door neighbor, Bryan Freund, with the same. The house across the street from Freund's belonged to Franklin Branham, who died in 2004 from glioblastoma multiforme, a brain cancer found in about three people per 100,000.

Branham's case, brought by his widow, Joanne, was the first to go to trial. It lasted five weeks before the judge angrily dismissed it in October 2010 after blasting testimony from the plaintiff expert epidemiologist as "tantamount to fraud."

The judge in April 2011 ruled in favor of Rohm and Haas and dismissed the lawsuit, despite the fact that plaintiffs' attorney Aaron Freiwald had three more expert witnesses to call. The appellate court ruled Wednesday that the judge clearly violated court rules that do not allow the granting of nonsuit until after the plaintiff has rested.

Weisenberger built homes, and joined Franklin Branham in a home-building venture called McLake. Among the many homes he built or improved was that of McCullom Lake resident Donna Gates, who remembered Weisenberger as a good man who "stood up for people when he thought they were done wrong."

Donna Gates and her husband, Glenn, did the same for him, and agreed to carry a class-action lawsuit on behalf of current and former village residents. While it was unsuccessful against Rohm and Haas, one of the other companies named as a defendant – neighboring Modine Manufacturing – settled out of court.

"I've always admired Kurt. He was a great guy, very intelligent and very helpful to his friends, and a nice person," Donna Gates said.

Jason Weisenberger said he is glad that his mother will get her day in court, but he mourns not just for his father, but for lost opportunities and lost time.

"No verdict, no amount of money can make up for the past 10 years of suffering. He was blessed enough to see the births of his grandchildren, but he never truly enjoyed knowing what being a grandfather meant," Jason Weisenberger said.

Kurt Weisenberger leaves behind a wife, son and daughter, and seven grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Twelve of the 33 lawsuits, including Weisenberger's, are on behalf of deceased people.

About this series

"Coincidence or Cluster?" is the Northwest Herald's ongoing investigation of the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits.

Correction: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect name for Kurt Weisenberger in a photo caption. The Northwest Herald regrets the error.

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