IBM urges dismissal of suit filed by ill former workers

A lawsuit alleging that IBM Corp. overlooked higher-than-usual incidences of cancer among workers at its manufacturing facilities should be dismissed, the company last week argued in the Superior Court of California for the County of Santa Clara in San Jose.

Four plaintiffs in the case charge that IBM concealed evidence of “systemic chemical poisoning” among workers at its former plant in San Jose, said Richard Alexander, of Alexander, Hawes & Audet LLP in San Jose, representing the plaintiffs. IBM sold the plant to Hitachi Ltd. last year as part of the sale of its hard-drive business.

If the motion to dismiss is not granted, jury selection for the trial is set to begin in October. Alexander expects the case will reach trial, he said in an interview following last week’s hearing. Judge Robert Baines is expected to issue a ruling this week, he said.

More than 100 cases are pending against IBM and other chemical companies claiming that chemicals and materials used in the manufacture of semiconductors, hard drives and circuit boards caused abnormal medical problems among current and former IBM employees in New York, Vermont and Minnesota, according to IBM.

The plaintiffs claim that IBM was aware of health problems that plagued workers at the plant, and did nothing to limit workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals used in the manufacturing process that are said to have been responsible for those problems. The four individuals in the San Jose case developed various forms of cancer after working at IBM, and other workers at IBM plants around the U.S. have endured unusual rates of cancer and birth defects, the plaintiffs allege.

One of the San Jose workers, Suzanne Rubio, died from breast cancer after working in an IBM clean room, Alexander said. Two other plaintiffs have developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and another woman underwent a mastectomy after contracting breast cancer, he said.

The affected employees worked directly with chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens, Alexander said. IBM was aware of the danger of those chemicals, and did nothing to limit employees’ exposure to the chemicals even after some of them developed illnesses, he said.

IBM claims that the plaintiffs do not have enough medical or scientific evidence to prove their claims under California law, which requires employees to prove a number of charges before they can claim damages outside of worker’s compensation benefits, said Bill O’Leary, an IBM spokesman.

In order to sue their employers directly, the plaintiffs must prove that their employer knew of a condition that was making employees sick before the employees became aware, failed to tell the employee of that condition and knowingly sent workers back on the job under those conditions, O’Leary said.

IBM denies that it had information that its workers were sickened by chemicals used in the manufacturing process, and will contest the issue at trial, O’Leary said.

The plaintiffs are seeking “fair and reasonable compensation” for Rubio’s death and the illnesses of the other employees, Alexander said. They will also seek punitive damages against IBM, he said.