IBM cancer case begins

Arguments begin in the landmark toxic-chemical case, as an attorney for two former employees claims the computer giant knew of symptoms of ongoing chemical poisoning among workers.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Court arguments in the landmark toxic-chemical case against IBM opened here Tuesday, as an attorney for two former employees claimed the computer giant knew of symptoms of ongoing chemical poisoning among workers.

In a courtroom dotted with onlookers wearing black armbands emblazoned with the names of deceased family members and friends, attorney Richard Alexander opened with a mini-chemistry lesson for jury members. He said experts would testify that the chemicals used on a daily basis by former employees James Moore and Alida Hernandez in IBM's San Jose, Calif., facility contributed to their later cancers.

"Because IBM said nothing when it had the duty to speak up, these poor people continued to work," Alexander told the jury. "They were never given a chance to preserve their most valuable asset: their health."

The case, which is expected to last for up to several months, is the first of 250 similar cases to go to court. The cases, spread nationwide, seek to hold IBM responsible for a wide variety of cancers and other maladies that plaintiffs say were caused by working in hard-drive and semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

IBM, like other manufacturers, has long said that it has taken every precaution against exposing its employees to dangerous levels of toxins.

"The evidence will not show that the people of IBM created a toxic atmosphere in which (employees) managed and worked," Bob Weber, a Jones Day attorney representing IBM, said in his opening statement. "You won't see fraud, because it didn't happen."

Analysts said the case could trigger an avalanche of similar suits against other manufacturing companies if plaintiffs win a verdict against IBM.

But legal experts said that could be difficult. Lawyers for the plaintiffs must prove not only that the chemicals used by the company in its manufacturing process could have contributed to these former employees' cancers, but that IBM knew of the specific dangers and did not take adequate precautionary measures.

Already, the judge in the case has ruled one IBM database on employee mortality rates inadmissible as evidence. The company had argued that the mortality database contained only death certificate information, with no data on what kind of jobs deceased employees had held, or what kind of chemicals they were exposed to.

Alexander quoted IBM medical clinic records for both Moore and Hernandez that he said showed evidence of long-term chemical poisoning, comparing their symptoms to those included in IBM's own chemical-use handbooks.

He also cited the existence of a different IBM database, created in the early 1980s, which was designed to track a wide variety of employee information, including job history, chronic diseases, what types of substances they had worked with and mortality data. That database system should prove the company was aware of the effects of chemical exposure on its workers, Alexander said.

But IBM spokesman Bill O'Leary said that database project had proved too ambitious in terms of data collection and had been discontinued after a test implementation.

Weber outlined details of Hernandez's and Moore's medical histories that, he said, could more plausibly have led to their respective cancers, including factors such as heavy smoking, obesity and other environmental chemical exposures.

In Hernandez's case, Weber said, IBM doctors routinely sent her to outside specialists for examination, hardly indicating a desire to conceal chemical exposure.

Both sides will be presenting detailed medical evidence over the next several weeks.

The case has galvanized opinion among a local community of former IBM employees and associates, some of whom conducted a memorial service at the courthouse early Tuesday for family members and friends who had died.

"My life has been interwoven with all of these people," said former IBM employee John Roberts, who said he had worked for the company for 19 years, and wore a black armband bearing the name of a friend. "It makes me wonder why it got them and it hasn't gotten me."