A retired IBM employee says he has cancer caused by breathing toxic chemical vapors during the 22 years he worked at the IBM plant in Rochester. He's suing several chemical manufacturers, in what his lawyer says has the potential to be the first of several similar suits in Minnesota.
Ron Porter, 65, filed his lawsuit Friday in Dakota County district court in Hastings. Porter alleges his exposure to more than 40 toxins at the IBM facility is directly related to his battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Porter is asking for compensation in excess of $50,000.
The suit does not name IBM. Under Minnesota law, an employee can only sue his employer for worker's compensation damages if he proves the company intentionally harmed him. However, the suit does name Maplewood-based 3M and others.
Porter's attorney, Mike Sieben, says he expects several more Rochester IBM workers to come forward with complaints.
"Unfortunately, because of what we've learned on the East and West coasts, we're going to see several more incidents in cancer and birth defects arising from folks who worked at the IBM Rochester plant," says Sieben. "Mr. Porter's case represents the first of what I expect to be many cases."
IBM, and several chemical maufacturers which supplied the company with solvents, already face similar lawsuits in other parts of the country. The suits involved more than 200 employees in three states.
"From 1980 to 1990, our agency had 11 health inspectors to monitor more than 100,000 worksites. So it's just not possible for OSHA to inspect each work site on a regular basis."
- Minnesota OSHA spokeswoman Jenny O'Brien
Last year, IBM and two chemical makers settled a $40 million lawsuit over a child's birth defects. Two workers alleged that their exposures in the clean room of the East Fishkill, N.Y., plant caused chromosomal damage to their son. None of the lawsuits involving IBM workers has gone to trial.
Ron Porter worked for IBM in Rochester between 1957 and 1979. He had several jobs during that time - a metal plating operator, printed circuit processor and a procurement engineer. Sieben says Porter spent much of his time in what the industry calls "clean rooms." They're designed to keep dust particles and other contaminants away from circuit boards and other products they were making.
"The problem was - the emphasis was on keeping the product clean, sometimes to the detriment of employee safety," Sieben says.
Ron Porter, who retired 15 years ago, has undergone chemotherapy and radiation, spinal taps, a bone marrow transplant and hospitalization for a post-operative infection. Porter's lawsuit alleges chemical manufacturers and suppliers knew the dangers of solvents, resins and other chemicals, but led employees to believe they were safe.
In similar cases, the chip-making industry has argued scientists have not established a link between the chemicals at the plants and many of the illnesses. They also say manufacturers complied with all applicable laws.
Porter's attorney Mike Sieben argues a link has been established. He says he has several expert witness physicians who have studied the link between the chemical vapors and cancer. And they say there's a clear connection.
IBM spokesman Tim Dallman says, "It's our practice not to comment on litigation." He did note that the Rochester plant has had a good safety record. Minnesota's Occupational Safety and Health Administration honored the Rochester plant as one of the state's safest work sites, because of its low injury and illness rates.
Minnesota OSHA spokeswoman Jenny O'Brien says the agency conducted one inspection at IBM over the last 30 years. O'Brien says in 1990 an inspector examined the plant's hazardous waste disposal system, but did not check worker exposure to chemicals.
"From 1980 to 1990, our agency had 11 health inspectors to monitor more than 100,000 worksites. So it's just not possible for OSHA to inspect each work site on a regular basis," says O'Brien. "We respond to complaints or fatalities or major injuries. If there's three or more people hospitalized -those we always respond to."
O'Brien says federal OSHA has not set safety standards for these chemicals used in chip-making. OSHA held hearings about the chemicals in the early 1990s, and plans to review the chemical standards for them again this July.
Sieben says there will be several months of discovery before he'll know whether the case will go to trial or not.More Information