In a blow to a high-tech industry that has long portrayed itself as a “clean” manufacturer, IBM Corp. settled a lawsuit with two former employees who claimed that exposure to toxic fumes at one of the computer giant’s plants caused their son’s birth defects.
The settlement, disclosed Tuesday, is but one piece of the ongoing, multibillion-dollar legal fight between IBM and its chemical suppliers, and more than 220 IBM employees and their families at IBM semiconductor plants in San Jose, New York and Vermont.
The litigation, closely watched by the technology industry, could serve as a bellwether for other, similar complaints against computer manufacturers, legal experts say.
National Semiconductor Corp. is facing similar complaints connected to plants in Northern California and Scotland, with complaints brought by workers, former employees and their families.
In the IBM case, Michael Ruffing and Faye Carlton were employed in the 1980s at IBM’s semiconductor manufacturing plant in East Fishkill, N.Y. Ruffing mixed chemicals in large drums, while Carlton worked in a chemical-processing area.
According to court filings, Ruffing and Carlton came into contact with toxic chemicals that ultimately led to birth defects in their son, Zachary David Ruffing. Zachary, now 15, was born blind and with facial deformities that prevent him from breathing normally.
The Ruffing case, filed in 1996, initially sought $40 million in damages. It was set for trial in late February. Details of the settlement, which was signed late Friday, were sealed.
“The other cases are continuing to go forward,” said William DeProspo, co-lead counsel for Ruffing and Carlton and the other complaints against IBM. He declined to comment on Friday’s settlement.
In a statement, IBM said that it admitted no liability in the settlement, and that “the vast majority of civil cases in America terminate without a trial, and that is particularly true as regards cases involving novel and complex issues of law, science and fact.”
But such cases sully the long-standing public image of ecological consciousness in Silicon Valley, where factory workers are portrayed in television ads as wearing disco-colored “bunny suits” and dancing in sterile “clean rooms,” industry experts said.
“The fact that IBM felt compelled to settle this case when it was on the verge of going to court is a good sign that they felt insecure in their position,” said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a nonprofit environmental group. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
In court filings and in interviews with environmental groups, workers from IBM and National Semiconductor have cited cases of employees wearing protective suits who fainted from chemical leaks and vomited in clean-room showers.
National Semiconductor, based in Santa Clara, Calif., could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Officials with the Semiconductor Industry Assn., the trade group for U.S.-based chip makers, declined to comment on the IBM settlement.
The industry group’s staff said they are aware of various reports of alleged cancer complaints and other health problems among workers in chip-manufacturing facilities.
They declined to talk about the specifics of these complaints.
“While we don’t have any scientific data, we are looking into the matter,” said Molly Marr, an association spokeswoman. “We’ve done medical studies in the past, and we’re looking into doing one now.”
Associated Press was used in compiling this report.