California Jury Clears IBM in Workplace Cancer Suit

February 27, 2004 ( - International Business Machines (IBM) prevailed in a closely watched trial yesterday, as a jury found that Big Blue was not responsible for the cancers that developed in two former employees at a disk drive plant.

>The jury deliberated for less than two days before clearing the computer giant of claims that the harsh chemicals used in its factory caused the retirees’ illnesses. The two retirees who brought the suit, James Moore, 62, and Alida Hernandez, 73, had claimed that IBM hid the dangers of their job at the plant in San Jose, .

Cancer Claims

>Moore, who began working for IBM in the 1960s and suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, had asked the jury to award him $11,000 per year for the rest of his life in lost wages, $26,000 in medical expenses and possibly millions in pain and suffering.   Hernandez, a 14-year veteran of the San Jose plant, suffered from liver damage and breast cancer that resulted in a mastectomy, and she was asking for at least $8 million, according to Reuters.

>Under law, plant-workers’ claims normally have to be handled through the workers’ compensation system, where punitive damages aren’t awarded. However, plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Alexander of Alexander, Hawes & Audet in San Jose argued that IBM doctors had known that the plaintiffs had “systemic chemical poisoning” and had hidden that fact from them while sending them back to work. Under law such deception is grounds for trying workers’ cases in court, according to the Wall Street Journal.

>IBM said the unanimous jury decision vindicated Big Blue from the charges of “fraudulent concealment.”

>In closing arguments IBM attorney Robert Weber has said that Hernandez, a diabetic who was obese during her IBM career, and Moore, a former smoker, likely developed cancer from issues unrelated to the workplace, according to the Associated Press.   “IBM has been a safe place to work all along,” IBM spokesman Chris Andrews said after the verdict, according to Reuters.   “Unfortunately IBM employees get sick just like how everyone else gets sick.”

Case History

>Last fall, Judge Robert Baines allowed the plaintiffs to bypass the workers comp system and bring the case to trial, based on what he considered compelling pretrial evidence.   However, the judge’s ruling also increased the plaintiffs’ burden of proof. To win, the plaintiffs had to show that workplace conditions caused their cancers and that IBM managers knew about the dangers and lied to the workers even after they complained of bloody noses, pink eye, blackouts and fatigue for several years, according to Reuters.

Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM is facing similar lawsuits inSilicon Valley , New York and , including about 40 involving birth defects in children of IBM workers. The first of those cases is due to go to court Tuesday inWhite Plains , New York .