Written by Donora Death Fog, Donora Smog Event

How Were Lawsuits Settled After the Donora Death Fog?

After Susan Gnora died in the smog, a settlement with US Steel allowed each of her eight children, all of whom were age 20 or older, to receive a bit over half the cost of a new TV.

Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

There was an enormous amount of “smoke” in the Donora-Webster valley back in October 1948, and for the next few years much of the residual was being shoveled by lawyers suing one of the US Steel companies in Donora on behalf of some of the smog victims. Let’s take a look at how one of those suits was settled.

The first suit filed was on behalf of John Gnora and his family against American Steel & Wire (ASW), a subsidiary of US Steel but a separate corporation on paper. (It’s complicated; I’ll explain it in my book.) Gnora was the executor of the estate of Suzanna “Susan” Gnora, his wife, who died at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning Oct. 30, in the thick of the smog. The family’s lawyer, Marvin D. Power of the firm Margiotti & Casey, filed suit against ASW for a total of $80,000, to compensate the family not just for Susan’s death but also for damage to the Gnora home from noxious fumes emitted by the mills. Like virtually everyone else in the valley, the fumes were said to peel paint from walls so often, inside and out, that washing, scrubbing, and repainting needed to be done far more often than would normally be expected.

ASW was represented by Charles E. Kenworthey of the Pittsburgh firm Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay. Kenworthey responded to the suit with two defenses:

  1. While admitting that its mills produced zinc, sulfuric acid, and “small quantities of cadmium,” and that Susan Gnora did indeed die on the 30th of October, ASW denied “each and every other allegation contained in the complaint.”
  2. Even if there was a “serious risk” to Mrs. Gnora and her family, said ASW, it was they who “voluntarily assumed that risk.”

Power and the Gnora family, as is routine in such cases, received from Kenworthey a set of interrogatories, questions from one party to the other that help determine essential facts of the case and which facts would be presented at trial. In the Gnora case, more than 30 interrogatories were to be answered by Power and his clients.

Imagine, if you would, you’re an uneducated laborer from Slovenia working in dangerous conditions at a mill, that you speak little English, that you’ve just lost your wife of 41 years, and that you’re faced with helping your lawyer answer dozens of questions along the lines of:

  • “What was the date of each other illness or physical injury of decedent during the ten years preceding her death?”
  • “How many of such trees and shrubs [on the property] are claimed to have been damaged or destroyed by defendant’s negligence?”
  • “For each such repair job [to the house] give the nature of the work done, the materials used, the cost including materials, labor and any other charges, and the name and address of the person to whom the cost was paid.”

A follow-up interrogatory asks for receipts for all of those those repairs.

Intimidating.

The Gnoras put their trust into Power’s hands. Whether he served that trust effectively has been debated since that time, but I suspect he slammed into US Steel’s wall of nearly inexhaustible funds and believed, at settlement, that he had gained for his clients the most he could reasonably expect at that time and under those circumstances. The settlement today seems a pittance.

  • Claim amount: $80,000 ($852,312 in today’s dollars)
  • Settlement received: $5,000 ($53,270 in today’s dollars)
  • Average cost of a TV in 1949: $500
  • Payment breakdown in 1949 and 2019 figures:

US Steel — 1
Gnora Family — 0

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