By Hank Hogan
ARMONK, N.Y.—For the IBM Corp. and the cleanroom-based semiconductor industry, the next few months promise to be interesting times.
A late September ruling by Santa Clara (Calif.) County Superior Court Judge Robert Baines has allowed the first two of possibly hundreds of cleanroom cancer and health claims against IBM to proceed to trial. The cases, which were scheduled to begin in mid-October, are expected to take months.
In them, plaintiffs James Moore and Alida Hernandez will attempt to prove that IBM not only exposed the two to harmful chemicals in San Jose, Calif. cleanrooms, but did so knowingly. Exposure is alleged to lead to cancers, birth defects, and other problems. In addition to IBM, the legal action also involves suppliers of the chemicals.
Alexander, Hawes, and Audet LLP, a San Jose-based law firm, is the lead counsel in the cases against IBM and the many others that are pending. “We are looking forward to begin to tell the story in open court about what it's like to actually work in manufacturing in the so-called clean industry, and look back on your career and discover what you have to show for it is cancer,” says Amanda Hawes, a partner in the firm.
In fighting the claims, IBM spokesman Bill O'Leary says that hundreds of similar cases have been thrown out of court, and those remaining should go through the Workman's Compensation process and not civil court. “They don't belong in court at all,” says O'Leary of the Santa Clara cases. “We believe there is no scientific validity at all to the claims being made.”
IBM maintains that a number of factors could have caused the employee health problems. There are several hundred such cases pending—by some counts, as many as 250. Some are in California and some in New York. Given the nature of the current claims—that IBM knowingly harmed its workers in a chemical-using cleanroom—there's reason for the semiconductor industry as a whole to watch these cases with concern.
IBM has kept what's been called a mortality file, but company officials say it's only maintained in association with a death benefits program. That assertion, the document itself, and any conclusions drawn from the mortality information are likely to be sources of legal wrangling and expert testimony.
The company has a study underway that it expects could provide scientifically valid information, but it won't be ready in time to impact the current trial. “We have a study with reputable researchers—outside, independent researchers—looking at our cleanroom environments versus the general population and versus the remainder of the employee population at a number of our sites,” O'Leary says. “We expect that study to conclude some time early next year and the results to be made available.”