SAN JOSE, Calif IBM Corp.'s sweeping win in a chemical exposure case here Thursday (Feb 26) could have significant repercussions over the next several weeks for similar cases pending for both IBM and National Semiconductor. However, the decision did not directly speak to some issues raised in the case, such as possible links between cancer and chemicals in electronics manufacturing.
After less than two days of deliberations following a four-month trial, a jury of eleven women and one man returned a unanimous decision that former disk drive workers Alida Hernandez and James Moore were not subject to "systemic poisoning" as a result of chemicals at the IBM workplace. After answering no to that first question on the verdict form, jurors were not required to answer subsequent questions including whether chemical exposure led to their cancers.
Plaintiffs Hernandez and Moore said they were disappointed the jury didn't rule in their favor, but were pleased the IBM case shed public light on the subject of chemical exposure in the workplace.
"A lot of people I worked with at IBM have cancer or have died from cancer," said Hernandez. "I still believe my [breast] cancer was caused by chemicals I worked with at IBM. And now hopefully people will be more aware and ask questions about what they are working with. We were too trusting and when they said the chemicals we worked with were safe, we took their word for it," she said.
"I think this [trial] made people aware that chemicals are causing problems," said Moore, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I hope the young people learn from this and start asking questions about the chemicals they work with," he said.
The Alexander firm selected Hernandez and Moore as among the strongest of more than 50 claims in San Jose. The firm now has 60 days to determine whether it will appeal the decision.
Attorneys will meet March 26 with Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Robert A. Baines to determine whether they will push forward with bringing to trial here any of the remaining plaintiffs in the San Jose case. A subsequent trial would probably not be held until early next year.
"They will have to take a hard look at the facts of the other plaintiffs' cases," said one source close to the trial who asked not to be named.
The Alexander firm also is expected to meet in the next several days with attorneys for National Semiconductor to review the outlook for a similar set of about 50 claims against that company's operations in Santa Clara and Greenock, Scotland. Currently both sides are in an early discovery phase with no set trial, and none expected for at least a year.
Ernie Getto, National's lead attorney in the case and a partner with the firm Latham & Watkins (Los Angeles), said he was encouraged by the IBM decision because the two cases have many similarities.
"This is a very significant development," Getto said. "Plaintiffs selected their two best cases, and the jury just wasn't at all convinced they had contracted something they called systemic chemical poisoning," he added.
The Alexander firm sought to establish a diagnosis of systemic chemical poisoning due to repeated exposure to relatively low amounts of chemicals including acetone, isopropyl alcohol, epoxy resins and mixtures of those and other chemicals over an extended period of time.
Separately, a first trial begins in White Plains, New York March 2 for a set of about 50 birth defects cases alleged to be related to chemical exposures at an IBM East Fishkill wafer fab. Heather Curtis alleges exposure to chemicals such as acetone and freon while she worked for six months at the IBM fab caused her daughter Candice to be born in 1980 with severe birth defects.
"The San Jose decision will not change our strategy for the New York case, but it does give us a tremendous psychological advantage," said Mary Ellen Powers an attorney for IBM involved in both cases.
Alexander said attorneys will have greater latitude to present evidence in the New York case because the San Jose case was based on a narrow exception to California's labor law. "Not being able to introduce evidence of other cases is the equivalent of having to fight with both hands tied behind your back," he said.
Specifically, attorneys are petitioning to show evidence of 13 other birth defect cases in the New York trial. He also hopes to bring up in New York an IBM benefits report showing higher than average breast cancer rates among its deceased workers. Judge Baines excluded that report in the San Jose case because it was ruled irrelevant and statistically inconclusive.
"This is not relevant to the New York birth defect case and will not be allowed there either," said Powers. "Their science in the New York case is just as weak as it was in the San Jose case," she added.
Over the next few weeks, attorneys from both sides are expected to interview jurors in the IBM San Jose case to better understand their thinking, which could further color subsequent legal moves. Both sides spent about 30 minutes with the jury after they rendered their decision Thursday.
Those interviews could help legal experts get their first glimpse into the jury's thinking about broad links between workplace chemicals and cancer. The jury unanimously requested they not be contacted by media.