Lawyers representing the husband and estate of Joleen Braasch-Berry, a 26-year-old Salem woman who was struck and killed while riding her bicycle in the fall of 2020, filed a lawsuit Monday in Multnomah County against the manufacturer and distributors of “CRC Duster,” an aerosol spray used to clean computer keyboards. Also named in the complaint was the man who drove his car into Braasch-Berry minutes after inhaling the spray in a Home Depot parking lot.
At an emotional news conference in front of the courthouse Monday, the legal team from Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost (a financial supporter of BikePortland) explained that in the past decade the abuse of dust removers, known as “huffing” or “dusting”, has soared above that of other intoxicating inhalants such as spray paint, gasoline, nitrous oxide and toluene — as indicated by skyrocketing emergency room visits. It is estimated that over three million people a year abuse dust removers to get high.
Dust removers use difluorethane as a propellant, but the chemical is also a well-known, fast-acting neurotropic intoxicant which can cause euphoria, loss of coordination, hallucinations and sudden death. This disturbing YouTube video of a young man huffing in a McDonald’s parking lot shows how debilitating the substance is.
Following the legal briefing, George Berry, clutching a photograph of his deceased wife, spoke softly into the microphones, “I shouldn’t be here today, I should be celebrating my first wedding anniversary.”
Later, attorney Ray Thomas (a well-known bike advocate and BikePortland contributor) took the microphone and made it clear that this case was personal to him. Braasch-Berry lived with the Thomas family when she attended Hillsboro High School, and they had remained close to her after she left for college and began her career. “When she was killed,” Thomas said at the press conference. “I read the police reports and found out that a duster product was used by this young man within five minutes of her death. I tried to find out if this had happened to others. And what I found was that there were all these news stories, but there was no central collection system to pick up these duster injuries and deaths. I thought that was wrong… this type of zombie driver, killing and injuring people, the incidence of it was far more prevalent than I ever realized.”
The Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost effort is being aided by the Minneapolis-based law firm of Robins and Kaplan, which has expertise in the area and is actively litigating duster injuries and deaths in several states across the country.
The firm is seeking $6,005,794 for economic damages and pain and suffering from Home Depot, CRC Industries and William Justin Chambers, the man who ran into Braasch-Berry.
Thomas explained the rationale behind the lawsuit:
“We are trying to make it so the manufacturers of these products and the retailers that profit off of this pay the damage under Oregon law for the consequences of what happened to Joleen. We hope this will send a clear signal to this entire industry that if you allow these products to get into the hands of people like this driver, without any protection whatsoever, such as putting these products behind the counter, like other dangerous products that are ripe for abuse, you will be held responsible for damage. And money talks. And if they have to pay the damages for Joleen, it’s going to make them, and their insurance companies, take notice and do something to protect us so that maybe this will be less likely to happen to someone else.”
Also at the conference to support the complaint were representatives from the Street Trust, Oregon Walks and Families for Safe Streets.
— Lisa Caballero, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.