Jury rejects toxics lawsuit against IBM

A jury in Santa Clara, Calif., on Thursday rejected a lawsuit by former employees of IBM Corp. who alleged that the company knowingly exposed them to working conditions that caused cancer.

The jury voted unanimously in favour of IBM, according to Margie Hijduk, a clerk in the Superior Court for the State of California for the County of Santa Clara.

Alida Hernandez, 73, and James Moore, 62, worked at IBM’s Cottle Road facility in San Jose during periods that spanned from the 1960s to the 1990s. The suit charged that they suffered “systemic chemical poisoning” as a result of their work and that IBM knew this but sent them back to work with hazardous materials, Hernandez in hard disk manufacturing and Moore in circuit board making and system assembly. Hernandez later suffered from breast cancer and Moore from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

IBM argued that its workers’ exposure to chemicals was well within legal limits and that the company informed workers about the hazards and took steps to protect their health.

Late Thursday, the company applauded the verdict.

“After more than four months…in this trial, the jury in less than two days reached a decision that validated what we have maintained from the start: that IBM and its workplace are not responsible for the illnesses of these plaintiffs,” said IBM spokesperson Christopher Andrews.

The verdict may bode well for IBM. The suit was the first to reach a full trial out of about 200 actions concerning workers allegedly exposed to carcinogens at IBM facilities in California, New York and Minnesota, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Alexander, of Alexander, Hawes and Audet LLP, in San Jose. Next up is a suit involving birth defects allegedly caused by chemicals in an East Fishkill, New York, IBM chip plant, he said.

However, it may be easier for plaintiffs to win in other states because California law stands out as especially favourable to employers in such cases, Alexander said.

“I tried this case with my hands tied behind my back. That’s not going to happen in New York,” he said. The firm has not yet decided whether to appeal Thursday’s verdict, he said in an interview Thursday.

The suit took aim at what has often been called a safe industry, alleging that “clean rooms” designed to keep out potential contaminants were safe only for the products made in them and that the so-called “bunny suits” employees wore didn’t protect workers from hazardous chemicals. Solvents and other substances such as disk-coating materials contained carcinogens, Alexander told the jury. Since the time at issue in the trial, the industry has changed, he acknowledged in an interview Monday. For one thing, more work is done by robots, he said.

The plaintiffs rested their case Monday, seeking economic and general damages, after Judge Robert Baines ruled they could not ask the jury for punitive damages against IBM. Closing arguments by IBM ended Tuesday.

The jury was asked to decide whether it was more likely than not that IBM had fraudulently concealed information from the plaintiffs. Had they been able to seek punitive damages to punish IBM, they would have had to prove it was “highly probable,” Alexander said after his closing arguments on Monday.

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