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IBM Built ``Conspiracy of Silence,'' Lawyer Claims

Nov 5, 2003 | AP IBM Corp. betrayed employees by promoting itself as an environmental steward while concealing the hazards of the carcinogenic chemicals that workers inhaled and touched, a former employee testified Wednesday in a case against Big Blue.

IBM attorneys dismissed charges that working conditions caused cancer in employees, calling the allegations ``unreasonable and unscientific.''

But Alida Hernandez, an IBM retiree who spent 14 years at the company's San Jose disk-drive plant, told jurors that IBM intentionally hoodwinked its work force about the foul-smelling chemical mixtures that splashed on her clothing and soaked her chest and arms.

IBM executives also created what Hernandez's attorney called a ``conspiracy of silence'' by giving bonuses to workers who kept quiet, she said.

``I had heard so much about IBM that it was one of the greatest companies to work for, that it was a world leader,'' said Hernandez, 73, a white-haired great-grandmother who began working for IBM in 1977 after a 30-year career as a fruit packer. ``IBM lied to me. They never told me that the chemicals I'd be working with would cause me cancer.''

Hernandez, who had a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer and liver damage during her IBM tenure, and her co-worker James Moore, who suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, sued Big Blue in 1998. Both retired after years of stripping, coating and cleaning the aluminum disks of computer circuit boards.

Their case is the first to go to trial of 257 related lawsuits in Silicon Valley, Minnesota and New York. Seven of the New York cases are scheduled to begin in March, but any ruling in Santa Clara could shape the outcomes of those cases.

Hernandez and Moore, expected to take the stand Thursday, are asking for an unspecified amount of money to cover medical bills and pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages.

Robert Weber, an attorney representing IBM, said the plaintiffs' case relies on emotion but lacks ``sound science.'' He noted that Hernandez was an overweight diabetic on hormone replacement therapy, and Moore was a heavy smoker for at least two decades; both were at risk for cancer regardless of whether they handled benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic and other chemicals on the job.

``Every human being has a remarkable set of factors and conditions that may elevate their risk of developing cancer,'' Weber said. ``To look at snapshots here and there and to not consider an array of other risk factors is unreasonable and unscientific. The IBM workplace was state-of-the-art, a place where people were well informed.''

Moore and Hernandez's case hinges on whether IBM doctors knew with certainty that workers' complaints ranging from a runny nose and conjunctivitis to dangerously elevated liver enzymes and chronic headaches were symptoms of systemic chemical poisoning, a suspected precursor to cancer.

Weber said Tuesday that Hernandez now a svelte, healthy-looking woman was a 210-pound diabetic on liver-weakening medications when she worked at IBM in the 1980s, which may have caused elevated liver enzymes and related illnesses. Weber said Moore's cancer could have been related to his pack-a-day habit throughout the 1950s and '60s or his youth in the San Joaquin valley, where he handled carcinogen-containing fertilizers in orchards and worked in a gas station.

On Tuesday, Weber showed 12 jurors a litany of medical records from IBM's clinic, which showed that IBM doctors and nurses had discussed the workers' concerns and encouraged them to seek independent advise from outside doctors.

The plaintiffs argue that IBM should have warned workers that they were touching and inhaling chemicals known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Hernandez said Wednesday that managers told her in her 1977 orientation and repeatedly until her 1991 retirement that discussing her workplace with colleagues, relatives or friends was a ``no-no.'' Once, after she slammed the receiver on a stranger who called her work station inquiring about disk coating, the $10.35-an-hour worker received a $100 spot bonus.

Hernandez also said managers refused to provide details about chemicals she inhaled and touched usually without gloves or protective gear, other than a flimsy ``bunny suit'' meant to keep dust off disks. For years in IBM's ``final wash'' department, Hernandez extended her bare index finger to flip aluminum disks coated with a viscous film, then wiped off excess with putty knives or ``S.E. pads.''

``It stood for 'something else' that we weren't supposed to know exactly what it did,'' Hernandez said. ``It was brown, it smelled awful and it was like pancake batter. I didn't know the names of any chemicals in the disk materials, except for iron oxide.''

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