IBM settles 50 lawsuits by former San Jose plant workers

One of the biggest dangers that almost all workers face at one time or another is the workplace itself. Whether it’s RMS (Repetitive Motion Syndrome) or toxic chemicals and pollutants or SBS (Sick Building Syndrome), we are all exposed to debilitating workplace hazards that can–and do–make us ill or even kill us, often years after that exposure.

Corporate history on this issue is abysmal when it isn’t criminal (remember Erin Brockovich? That’s standard behaviour): denial, unconscionable personal attacks on the victims involving innuendo and outright lies, bald-face lying to investigating authorities, cover-ups, destruction of evidence, the list goes on and on. The one thing not on that list is: they never agree to clean up their mess until they’re forced to, either by govt or the courts.

Which makes me wonder about this item:

NO TERMS WERE DISCLOSED IN TOXIC CHEMICALS CASES

By Therese Poletti

San Jose Mercury News

IBM has settled 50 toxic chemical lawsuits brought by former employees at its San Jose manufacturing plant.

The terms of the confidential settlement in the closely watched litigation were not disclosed.

Chris Andrews, a spokesman for the Armonk, N.Y., computer giant, said Wednesday that a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge dismissed the cases following a settlement between the company and the plaintiffs.

Richard Alexander, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in San Jose, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

In February, a Santa Clara County Superior Court jury rejected two former IBM workers’ claims that they suffered systemic chemical poisoning as a result of their work at IBM’s Cottle Road disk drive manufacturing plant between the 1960s and 1980s.

Alida Hernandez, 73, and James Moore, 62, contended that exposure to acetone, benzene, trichloroethylene and other chemicals used in manufacturing clean rooms caused them to develop cancer. Hernandez suffered from breast cancer, and Moore has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The former IBM workers alleged that IBM knew they were ill and concealed that information from them. Their case, in which they were seeking millions of dollars in punitive damages, was the first of the some 50 similar cases to go to trial. The jury verdict in favor of IBM was unanimous.

In March, Judge Robert Baines put the remaining cases on hold and ordered both parties to meet with a mediator.

As far as I know, this is unprecedented. Oddities:

1) It’s not unusual for a judge to order the remaining parties in a large lawsuit like this into mediation after a verdict is either split or goes to the plaintiffs; it’s very unusual for a judge to do so when the verdict is unanimous and in favor of the defendant;

2) The company went into mediation; standard form is to appeal the judge’s ruling, and given the jury’s decision, IBM would have grounds for it to be set aside;

3) IBM has been involved in a number of suits resulting from unsafe working conditions and toxic poisoning; their history is to settle before the trial begins or after they’ve lost:

IBM previously settled two birth-defects cases in New York. In March, IBM settled a birth-defects lawsuit with the daughter of a former semiconductor plant worker in East Fishkill, N.Y., just before jury selection was to begin. Terms of that settlement were not disclosed. The plaintiff, Candace Curtis, was seeking $100 million in damages.

In January 2001, IBM settled another birth-defects lawsuit with the family of Zachary Ruffing, who was born blind. Both his parents worked at the East Fishkill plant in the 1980s.

Why agree to a settlement after an outright win? The PR pounding, maybe; sometimes it’s more harmful for a company to have its workplace practices exposed in print even if it wins its case than if it just pays everybody to go away and keep it out of the media. But why did the judge order it? After the defendant loses, it’s in everybody’s interest to settle and get the suit out of the courts, but when the defendant wins it’s only in the interest of the plaintiffs. And I’m not the only one who thinks this is odd.

“It is difficult to draw conclusions” from confidential settlements, said John Kalin, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in toxic tort cases. “Usually, when it’s a confidential settlement, it’s requested by the corporation.”

Kalin said companies typically try to reach confidential settlements so the settlement cannot be used against them in future litigation. But he also noted that in the San Jose case the plaintiffs might not have had a lot of influence. “If you don’t have a favorable jury verdict, you don’t have the kind of leverage you would have if you had gotten a multimillion-dollar verdict.”

(emphasis added)

The only time I’ve ever seen judges do that is when they thought there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the jury–which it’s allowed to do–had ignored the law in reaching their verdict to such an extent that the equivalent of legal violence had been done. I think that’s what may have happened here.

Who knows why the jury did what it did? I wasn’t sitting in the courtroom and I don’t. What does seem clear is that, for whatever reason, IBM, as corporations do far too often, has once again dodged an accountability bullet by buying its way out of mistakes and/or policies that harmed its workers.

We were not, we are not, a priority for them, no matter what they say when they want to cut our pay. Or abandon our suit against them.

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