IBM cleanroom cancer case enters final stage

FEB. 24–SANTA CLARA – IBM Corp.’s medical department knew chemicals used to coat computer disk-drives might make employees sick and decided to conceal those dangers, a lawyer for two workers told jurors.

And the plaintiffs may now have a better shot of convincing the jury of this now that Judge Robert Baines ruled that Moore and Hernandez may only seek compensatory damages, not punitive damages, from IBM.

Alida Hernandez, who has breast cancer, and Jim Moore, who has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, are suing the world’s biggest computer maker, claiming they were sent back to work after they suffered headaches, runny noses and other symptoms of chemical exposure.

“They were never told they had systemic chemical poisoning,” workers’ attorney Richard Alexander said in closing arguments Monday in Santa Clara. “The result was what you would expect — cancer.”

Attorneys for the Armonk, N.Y.-based company are scheduled to deliver closing arguments today. Hernandez and Moore’s case is the first of about 200 similar cases nationwide to go to trial.

It was IBM’s “unwritten policy” not to discuss what workplace chemicals could’ve caused symptoms of chemical poisoning so as to prevent “mass hysteria” on the part of employees, Alexander said in arguments that lasted about six hours.

“That policy was in IBM’s economic interest,” he said.

Hernandez and Moore worked in IBM’s factory in San Jose, coating and cleaning hard-disk drives in clean rooms kept free of dust. They claim that daily exposure to acetone, isopropyl alcohol and epoxy first caused symptoms such as elevated liver enzymes, headaches and runny noses that eventually led to cancer.

“The room was very safe for the disk but not for the operator,” Alexander said.

IBM sold most of its computer-drive business to Hitachi Ltd. last year as part of a plan to shed unprofitable businesses. The business had a pretax loss of $423 million in 2001 on sales of $2.8 billion as orders for the drives weakened. IBM still makes the drives as part of a joint venture with Hitachi under the sale agreement. IBM plans to turn the business over to its Japanese partner completely in 2005.

During arguments, Baines cautioned Alexander not to “stray” beyond the scope of the case. Under California law, workers can only sue employers in special circumstances such as fraudulent concealment. Otherwise, employees must seek reparations for worker injuries under the state workers’ compensation system.

“It must be proven that the employer concealed a known injury,” Baines told the jury each time IBM attorney Robert Weber objected to Alexander’s portrayal of IBM’s workplace. “The issue of whether an employer has a dangerous workplace or keeps employees in the dark is not a part of our case here.”

Weber said in an earlier interview with the Contra Cost Times that that plaintiffs’ attorneys avoided the worker compensation system to get bigger legal fees.

“Our position from the beginning of this case has been that these are routine workers compensation cases that should be handled by the workers compensation system,” Weber said. “The fact that IBM has had to spend months of time and commit financial expense to this effort is an example of the need for workers comp reform.”


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