Groundbreaking IBM Cancer Trial BeginsNov 4, 2003 | AP
IBM Corp. lied to employees about the hazards of working with carcinogenic chemicals that caused them to develop rare forms of cancer, a lawyer for two ex-workers alleged Tuesday in a groundbreaking case against Big Blue.
IBM attorneys dismissed the charges as "cynical and speculative."
The attorney, who represents cancer survivors Jim Moore and Alida Hernandez, said in his opening statement that top toxicologists and oncologists, as well as IBM managers and an IBM whistleblower from France, will testify that the high-tech giant misled workers and concealed an extensive mortality database.
Company medical records show a disproportionate number of employees in IBM's San Jose disk-drive plant developed rare blood and lymph node cancers in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
"We will prove to you that IBM was liable for fraud by concealing from employees evidence of systemic chemical poisoning," the survivors attorney told the 11-woman, one-man jury. "Because IBM said nothing when it had a duty to speak up, these poor people continued to work with those chemicals and were not given a chance to preserve their most valuable asset: their health."
An attorney representing IBM, said the plaintiffs' case relied on emotion but lacked "sound science." He noted that one plaintiff was a heavy smoker for at least two decades, and the other was an overweight diabetic on hormone replacement therapy; both were at risk for cancer regardless of where they worked.
The Moore and Hernandez cases, filed in 1998, are the first to go to trial out of 257 similar lawsuits filed against IBM in Silicon Valley, Minnesota and New York. It's unclear how many of those cases will actually make it to court, but any ruling in Santa Clara could shape the outcomes of those cases.
Moore and Hernandez are asking for an unspecified amount of money to cover medical bills and pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages.
The case is expected to take at least six weeks and has riveted the semiconductor industry, which says it has dramatically reduced workers' exposure to chemicals.
Because of the threat of negative publicity and heart-wrenching anecdotes, the vast majority of environmental exposure cases against big companies are settled out of court, sometimes for hundreds of millions of dollars.
IBM settled a lawsuit in 2001 by two former employees who alleged that exposure to chemicals caused birth defects in their son. IBM suppliers Ashland Chemical Co., Eastman Kodak Co. and DuPont Corp. all named in Moore and Hernandez's original complaint reached tentative settlements in late summer.
William O'Leary, a spokesman for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, said outside the courtroom that the company has an "excellent" defense in the current case.
"The reality is that these chemicals are used in all kinds of industries," O'Leary said. "We maintain that we did not and would not send people into a hazardous environment."
IBM attorneys have said it's impossible to prove that the chemicals and mixtures used in IBM's plants translated directly into a higher incidence of cancer among workers. People develop cancer because of a genetic predisposition and from a variety of pastimes and habits, ranging from smoking to painting, the attorneys have said.
Before Tuesday's hearing began, protesters gathered outside the courthouse for a prayer vigil. A half-dozen mourners donned black armbands with the names of IBM employees who died of cancer. A local priest encouraged guests to participate in the Mexican "Day of the Dead" tradition by saying the name of the deceased and shouting "presente!"
Leticia Burch, 47, of San Jose, shouted the name of her husband, Brent, who worked at an IBM plant for 18 years. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1999, at age 43. Burch is not pursuing a case against IBM.
"I've had to be both a mother and a father to our children, and there's no way to replace my husband," she said. "Companies need to take responsibility for the chemicals in their plants."