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IBM ‘poisoning workers’ case goes to trial

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Two former IBM workers who claim that exposure to hazardous chemicals at IBM manufacturing facilities caused them to suffer from cancer will get their day in court.

Judge Robert Baines, of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, yesterday allowed lawsuits brought on behalf of former IBM employees James Moore and Alida Hernandez to proceed to jury trial. Jury selection in the cases is due to begin on October 14. But the judge dismissed similar lawsuits brought by two other plaintiffs, Maria Santiago and the family of the deceased Suzanne Rubio, after ruling that neither case was sufficiently strong to put before a jury.

The individual cases put before the judge are examples of cases brought by 250 former IT workers and their families, from across the US, who have sued IBM for allegedly exposing its workforce to carcinogenic substances despite knowing of the health risks its working practices posed to human health. IBM strenuously denies these claims.

Lawyers for IBM and the plaintiffs were each asked to select two of 40 cases filed in San Jose to put before Judge Baines. Both cases selected by the plaintiffs will go to trial while neither of the cases selected by IBM lawyers got through, leaving both sides claiming victory.

Richard Alexander, lead counsel for the workers, said Hernandez and Moore "were regularly soaked with chemicals and now that story can be told in court, where everyone can hear the truth", Reuters reports.

But David DiMeglio, a lawyer representing IBM, told the news agency that the judge's ruling "guts the entire theory on which plaintiffs were proceeding on all their cases."

Poisoned chalice

The plaintiffs (former and current IBM employees or their families) allege that the computing giant did nothing to safeguard the safety of workers handling chemicals known to be hazardous to people since the mid-1980s, until ten years later - well into the 90s.

In that ten-year period, IBM workers were subject to various forms of cancer or their children were born with birth defects at a higher frequency than the general population, the lawsuits allege.

The allegedly dangerous chemicals, such as benzene and arsenic, IBM workers were exposed to were used in semiconductor and disk drive manufacturing in its San Jose plant and in other manufacturing facilities across the US. The San Jose plant was acquired by Hitachi last year as part of the sale of IBM's disk-drive business.

Companies that supplied chemicals to IBM (including Union Carbide, Shell Oil and Fisher Scientific) are also named as defendants in the suits. The legal actions, which began five years ago in 1998, seek unspecified damages from IBM.

Reuters reports that the case rests on whether IBM's management knew if "workers' skin rashes, runny noses, and other ailments were signs of systemic poisoning caused by chemicals in the plant, and - if that is established - whether the company refused to tell the workers what it knew". The plaintiffs will argue that IBM must have known workers' health complaints were symptoms of more severe, and life threatening, diseases.

IBM denies the claims, which it says are without scientific foundation. It also contends that workers compensation law prevents it from being sued for damages in the case. The IT giant dismisses an analysis which suggests IBM's manufacturing workers were more likely than the general population to suffer from cancer as "litigation-driven junk science".

The lawsuits are being closely watched by the wider semiconductor industry, whose safety record has been spotlighted by the case. The outcome of the San Jose cases is likely to set a precedent for the outcome of similar cases across the US. ®

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