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Worker Suit Alleges IBM Work Site Toxins

Nov 5, 2003 | USA TODAY

The first of 250 IBM worker lawsuits came to trial Tuesday with the plaintiffs' lawyer alleging that IBM (IBM) knew workers at its former Silicon Valley factory were getting sick from workplace toxins but hid that from them.

An IBM attorney, denying those allegations, told jurors there is no evidence the workers' illnesses were caused by chemicals at the San Jose factory.

The jousting came in opening statements regarding 5-year-old lawsuits brought by former workers Alida Hernandez and Jim Moore. Both were diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s after having worked more than 10 years at an IBM computer disk-drive plant.

IBM sold the San Jose factory last year. A loss for the tech giant could propel other existing lawsuits to trial or spur new filings, workplace law experts say.

Hernandez, 73, worked for IBM for 14 years until 1993. She made data-storage disks, a job that exposed her to solvents, such as acetone, used to clean machinery, attorney Richard Alexander said. Hernandez was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after she left IBM, Alexander said. Moore, 62, worked for IBM from 1967 to 1993 making circuit boards and assembling computers. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1995, Alexander said.

Alexander said IBM's records showed the company knew as early as 1959 that some chemicals at its job sites could cause cancer and other illnesses. Moreover, he said, IBM records show that Hernandez, Moore and other workers had symptoms of chemical poisoning. Yet that was not disclosed to them, preventing them from protecting themselves by switching jobs or quitting, Alexander said.

But IBM attorney Robert Weber said Hernandez first learned she might be ill from IBM's doctors. IBM, while not conceding her symptoms were work-related, reassigned Hernandez to a different job over her objections, Weber says.

Hernandez's and Moore's personal doctors did not diagnose chemical poisoning, Weber said. That diagnosis came after they hired lawyers who referred them to specialists. Hernandez is expected to testify today. The trial is expected to last about two months.

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