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Jury clears IBM in toxics trial

The verdict hands a significant victory to the computer industry, which for years has been dogged with allegations of unsafe working conditions in plants.

A California jury on Thursday unanimously dismissed claims that IBM endangered two of its former employees by knowingly exposing them to hazardous materials that eventually gave them cancer.

The verdict marks a significant victory for IBM and the computer industry, which for years has faced allegations of unsafe working conditions in plants. As the first such complaint to go to trial against IBM, the case became the latest flashpoint for the issue, with the potential to affect the outcomes in hundreds of similar pending lawsuits.

Plaintiffs Alida Hernandez and James Moore suffered debilitating cancers after working in IBM's hard-drive making facilities. The two charged that Big Blue should have known and warned them of the dangers of chemical exposure that was routine in their jobs. More than 200 similar lawsuits against IBM have yet to come to trial.

California law usually requires factory workers to file claims through the state workers' compensation board. But the plaintiffs got around that limitation by arguing that IBM had deceived workers about the safety of its plants.

"Today's verdict is an acknowledgment that employee health and safety is woven into every aspect of our business," IBM said in a statement. "Ms. Hernandez and Mr. Moore were dedicated employees, and we hold them--and all of our current and former employees--in the highest regard. However, as we have maintained from the start, IBM is not responsible for their illnesses."

Richard Alexander of the San Jose, Calif., law firm Alexander, Hawes & Audet, who represented the plaintiffs, said the case was hampered from the start by California laws that tend to favor employers over workers.

"We had a truckload of evidence we couldn't deliver," he said, referring in part to pretrial rulings by the judge that excluded an IBM database of employee death records that the plaintiffs claimed showed higher cancer rates than the broader population.

The result "is to be expected under California law, which does next to nothing to protect workers from the dangers of the workplace," he added. "California allows employers to expose workers to carcinogens, and that's wrong. There is no 'safe' level of exposure."

Alexander said he does not plan to file an appeal. Instead, he said he is looking forward to his next toxics case against IBM, which is scheduled to get under way on Monday in New York. That suit, in which he is co-counsel, involves allegations from plaintiff Candace Curtis that chemical exposure at IBM plants led to birth defects. Alexander added that he believes New York offers stronger worker protections than California, suggesting that IBM could face greater exposure in that case.

While many of the processes and chemicals detailed in the California lawsuit have now been phased out, a loss for IBM would have been a huge blow for high tech's public image as a clean, health-conscious industry.

At issue in the case was not whether the IBM employees were actually harmed by working in the hard-drive manufacturing plants, but the narrower matter of whether the company should have warned them that they were being exposed to potentially harmful combinations of chemicals.

The industry as a whole has long contested critics' assertions that computer workers have a higher rate of cancer than the general population.

The industry has commissioned numerous studies into the effects of commonly used chemicals. IBM, for one, has commissioned researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to review its records and to interview employees to see whether any connection exists involving working environments, particular chemicals and cancers. Health studies on the issue to date are not considered conclusive, however.

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.