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IBM Cancer suit heads to trial in California
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The first of what could be hundreds of dangerous chemical exposure lawsuits against IBM goes to trial next week in California. There are at least four such cases in Minnesota, but because of the state's workers compensation law, they have been filed against IBM's suppliers. (MPR photo/Erin Galbally)
The first of what could be hundreds of civil trials involving computer maker IBM begins next week in California. Former employees and relatives of deceased workers filed the suits. They contend that years spent working at IBM resulted in cancer, birth defects, and other ailments. So far suits are pending in at least four states including Minnesota.

Rochester, MN — The California case involves two former IBM employees. Alida Hernandez developed breast cancer, while James Moore continues to battle non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Both contend they became ill after working at IBM's microchip plant in San Jose, California.

There are more than 200 similar cases pending. But this is the first to go before a judge and jury.

Lawyers, the semiconductor industry, and countless others are watching as Hernandez and Moore test the legal waters.

Attorney Mike Sieben represents a group of Minnesota plaintiffs who allege they got sick after working in IBM's Rochester plant. The Minnesota cases were among the last to be filed, and a court date could be as much as two years away. Even so Sieben says he's keeping careful track of what happens in California.

The cases in California, Minnesota, New York and Vermont all involve employees who worked at one time in what the industry refers to as "clean rooms." They're areas kept free of dust and particles known to cause problems during the production of things like microchips and other electronic components. IBM relies on a variety of chemicals, some of them airborne, to keep the clean room clean. Plaintiffs say these chemicals are responsible for a laundry list of health problems.

In California, Hernandez and Moore are suing IBM directly. But Minnesota's worker's compensation law is different. It requires plaintiffs to prove the company intentionally exposed them to harm. As a result, cases in Minnesota target IBM's chemical suppliers, companies such as 3M.

3M officials declined to comment for this story.

IBM has mounted an aggressive defense against the charges in California. IBM's William O'Leary says he expects IBM to prevail.

"I think IBM's position on this has been pretty consistent in that we don't see any scientific, technical or legal basis to the charges pending against IBM," says O'Leary.

O'Leary says that it's more than just IBM's future at stake.

"I think everyone does recognize that this is an industry wide issue and it calls into question the practice of all players in the semiconductor industry," he explains.

While industry analysts are reluctant to speculate on what the lawsuits might mean for IBM's financial future, scientists and researchers are less hesitant. Joseph LaDou heads the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California. Much of his research has focused on health issues specific to workers in the technology sector. LaDou says it's been an uphill battle. In the past he says lawsuits filed by workers in the industry have often been settled out of court.

"They've signed documents before any money changes hands saying that all legal discovery go back to the companies and remain secret, everything they've learned about the environment," says LaDou.

But the IBM cases may change that. The company maintains a detailed log called a corporate mortality file. It's a list that spans 30 years, stating the cause of death of thousands of IBM workers. LaDou says it's potentially an epidemiological study in and of its self. And he says the file could hold the key to identifying ailments specific to clean room workers.

"It might be conceivable that increases four- or five-fold in some cancers, particularly brain cancer, might emerge as a smoking gun similar to mesothelioma with asbestos," says LaDou.

A California judge has ruled the corporate mortality file cannot be used in the case Alida Hernandez and James Moore. It was considered a key piece of evidence for the plaintiffs. Researchers commissioned by lawyers in the case have been poring over the document and scientists like Joseph LaDou hope those researchers will be allowed to publish their findings. An IBM spokesperson calls the file and its data routine and immaterial to the case.

Regardless, IBM's corporate mortality file is certain to surface again and again as different lawsuits make their way to court.

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