IBM Corp. lied to employees about the hazards of working with chemicals that caused them to develop rare forms of cancer, a lawyer for two ex-workers alleged Tuesday in a groundbreaking case against Big Blue.
IBM attorneys disputed the allegations, calling them "cynical and speculative."
Richard Alexander, who represents cancer survivors Jim Moore and Alida Hernandez, said in his opening statement that toxicologists and oncologists, as well as IBM managers and a company whistle-blower, would testify that the company misled workers and concealed an extensive mortality database.
Company medical records, Alexander said, show a disproportionate number of employees in their 20s, 30s and 40s at IBM's disk drive plant in San Jose developed rare blood and lymph node cancers.
"We will prove to you that IBM was liable for fraud by concealing from employees evidence of systemic chemical poisoning," Alexander told the 11-woman, one-man jury. "Because IBM said nothing when it had a duty to speak up, these poor people continued to work with those chemicals and were not given a chance to preserve their most valuable asset: their health."
Robert Weber, an attorney representing IBM, said the plaintiffs' case relied on emotion and lacked "sound science." He said one plaintiff was a heavy smoker for at least two decades, and the other was an overweight diabetic on hormone replacement therapy; both, he said, were at risk for cancer regardless of where they worked.
"There's no evidence that either person in this case was poisoned chemically by IBM," Weber said. "IBM ran a responsible, state-of-the-art workplace that provided good opportunities for Silicon Valley men and women. No amount of chemophobia can distort that."
The Moore and Hernandez cases, filed in 1998, are the first to go to trial out of 257 similar lawsuits filed against IBM in Silicon Valley, Minnesota and New York. The remaining cases could be shaped by the outcome in Santa Clara though it's unclear how many of them will make it to trial.
Moore and Hernandez are asking for an unspecified amount of money to cover medical bills and pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages. The case is expected to take at least six weeks and has riveted the semiconductor industry, which says it has dramatically reduced workers' exposure to chemicals.
IBM settled a lawsuit in 2001 by two former employees who alleged that exposure to chemicals caused birth defects in their son. IBM suppliers Ashland Chemical Co., Eastman Kodak Co. and DuPont Co. -- all named in the original complaint filed by Moore and Hernandez -- reached tentative settlements in late summer.
William O'Leary, a spokesman for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, said outside the courtroom that the company has an "excellent" defense in the current case.
"The reality is that these chemicals are used in all kinds of industries," O'Leary said. "We maintain that we did not and would not send people into a hazardous environment."
IBM attorneys have said it's impossible to prove that the chemicals and mixtures used in IBM's plants translated directly into a higher incidence of cancer. People develop cancer because of a genetic predisposition and from a variety of pastimes and habits, ranging from smoking to painting, the attorneys have said.