IBM cancer trial starts tomorrow in Calif.

2 factory workers allege chemicals made them ill

October 14, 2003|By Joseph Menn | Joseph Menn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A closely watched case challenging the high-tech industry's image as clean and safe is scheduled to get under way tomorrow, with two former IBM Corp. workers alleging that the computer giant covered up the risks of chemicals used in manufacturing.

James Moore and Alida Hernandez contend that they developed cancer as a result of handling dangerous chemicals over several years at IBM's plant in San Jose, Calif., where disk drives are made. Moore and Hernandez are the first of more than 200 plaintiffs suing IBM for alleged health problems to have their cases reach trial.

Jury selection is to begin tomorrow. A California appeals court rejected Friday IBM's request to delay the trial.

The stakes are high not just for the Armonk, N.Y.-based computer maker but for all of computer-related manufacturing - particularly the $141 billion semiconductor industry.

A loss in Santa Clara Superior Court could unleash even more litigation based on evidence unearthed in the California case. The outcome also could influence cases scheduled for trial against IBM next year, as well as suits brought by workers for National Semiconductor Corp.

"The real issue is to what extent the occupational illness can be directly linked to the chemical exposure," said Ted Smith, executive director of a nonprofit advocacy group called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "If the allegations are found to be true by a jury, this will have many repercussions."

IBM and the Semiconductor Industry Association say there is no evidence that employees in chip or component plants are more likely to develop cancer than are workers in other jobs.

"IBM remains right on the merits," said Robert C. Weber, IBM's lead trial lawyer, who is with Jones Day, the Cleveland firm that represented R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in its legal battles with smokers. "IBM did not hide things from its employees."

IBM agreed to sell the plant to Hitachi Ltd. last year.

Although the chip manufacturing process has used a variety of confirmed and suspected carcinogens, legal and health experts say Moore and Hernandez will face a tough fight in court because of the way workers' compensation laws are written.

To prevail, the two have to show that IBM "must have known" that the individual workers were ill and decided not to warn them that further exposure would make them worse.

IBM says its medical records show that the company's doctors drew no such conclusions about the health of Moore and Hernandez.

Moore, 62, who made components for more than 20 years at IBM, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1995. He said in legal papers that he worked with chemicals such as trichloroethylene and sulfuric acid and complained to IBM's medical staff of symptoms including headaches, blurred vision and blackouts.

Hernandez, 73, who worked at the same facility for more than a dozen years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. She said she routinely used benzene, acetone, xylene and other chemicals, often splashing herself as she coated and cleaned surfaces. Hernandez complained to the company of headaches and blackouts.

The two filed a lawsuit in 1998, alleging IBM's staff doctors never warned them that their symptoms could reflect chemical poisoning.

"I was never even informed that they could be manifestations of poisoning of any kind, or that these symptoms had any relation to the chemicals I was working with," Hernandez said in a court declaration.

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