Jurors to determine whether cleanrooms caused cancer

IBM, National Semiconductor find themselves back under the hot lights, with several hundred cases waiting in the wings


SANTA CLARA, Calif.—The case against Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and various chemical manufacturers finally got underway in early November after some difficulty in empanelling an impartial jury.

Over the next several months, jurors will try to decide the validity of the plaintiffs' claims that cleanrooms run by IBM were good for products but not people.

Allegations by former IBM employees James Moore and Alida Hernandez is that long-term exposure to various chemicals lead to cancers and other health problems. As might be expected, IBM disputes these assertions. The plaintiffs also claim that IBM had knowledge of these health effects, a contention that is a legal requirement.

“They do have to show that we must have known—that is the standard,” says IBM spokesman Bill O'Leary.

Lead plaintiff counsel Alexander, Hawes & Audet LLP of San Jose intends to prove this was indeed the case. The firm had hoped that expert analysis of IBM's death benefits file—a document kept by the company on all death benefits paid—would provide part of the proof. But a pre-trial ruling by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Robert Baines excluded these results. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs haven't given up on this particular avenue.

“The ruling was with regard to some analysis of the corporate mortality file, and we have filed for reconsideration of that,” says Amanda Hawes, a partner in Alexander, Hawes & Audet.

These are the first of several hundred pending cases against IBM. There's also a possible class action lawsuit against National Semiconductor Corp. (Santa Clara) in both the United States and the United Kingdom that makes similar health-related claims. Alexander, Hawes & Audet is also a counsel in these cases. According to Hawes, the National Semiconductor case is in the discovery phase and no trial date has been set.

“We believe the lawsuit is without merit,” says company spokesperson LuAnn Jenkins. “National Semiconductor is committed to providing a safe working environment … period.”

Legal proceedings involving both IBM and National Semiconductor are being closely monitored by the semiconductor industry and other interested parties. The policy of the San Jose-based Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) is not to comment on litigation involving individual companies.

The SIA has announced an epidemiological study of the health effects of working in a cleanroom, but that investigation is still in the early stages. IBM has its own study underway, with results expected early next year.

Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an advocacy group that works on environmental and health issues involving cleanrooms and high tech industries, believes that a scientific study would be the best way to resolve these health questions. He also sees advantages to the current legal battles.

“Maybe these trials will help us get a better sense of just exactly how significant the health effects are from those exposures,” Smith says.


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