A Cook County jury on Monday awarded $363 million to a woman who alleged medical tool sterilization company Sterigenics exposed Willowbrook residents to ethylene oxide gas and gave her cancer.
It was the first of nearly 800 lawsuits against the company to go to trial.
The jury reached its verdict after a five-week trial and one day of deliberations, awarding 70-year-old Sue Kamuda $38 million in compensatory damages and $325 million in punitive damages.
The verdict exceeded the $346 million Kamuda’s lawyers sought in closing arguments Thursday against Sterigenics, its parent company, Sotera Health; and corporate predecessor Griffith Foods. The jury ruled Sterigenics should pay $220 million; Sotera, $100 million; and Griffith, $5 million.
“It was such a relief,” Kamuda said of the verdict.
“It’s been a long four years,” she said, since she sued Sterigenics in an effort to shut down the company’s plant, which was a third of a mile from her home. She said her son was diagnosed with lymphoma last year, but was barred from mentioning it during the trial.
Sterigenics has been sued by hundreds of other people since 2018, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published research showing people living near the plant got cancer at rates nine times the national average.
The Willowbrook plant had been releasing ethylene oxide from 1985 until it was temporarily shut down by the state in 2019 after authorities detected the gas nearby. Facing public pressure, Sterigenics closed the plant permanently.
Sterigenics pushed back against the verdict, saying it does not reflect the evidence presented in court.
“We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions,” the company said through a spokesperson.
“As we have consistently done throughout our history, we will continue to operate in compliance with applicable rules and regulations to ensure the safety of our employees, the communities in which we operate and patients around the world.”
Griffith Foods, an Alsip company, said the lawsuit was a “case of overreach” by the plaintiff’s lawyers. The company said it hasn’t been connected to Sterigenics in over 20 years.
In closing arguments Thursday, Kamuda’s lawyers argued Sterigenics released gas at levels thousands of times above the limits government scientists agreed were safe. After more than a decade of exposure to the gas, Kamuda developed breast cancer in 2007 despite having no predisposition to it, her lawyers said.
But the defendants argued ethylene oxide gas was never released at dangerous levels, and that scientific research still hasn’t proven a link between the gas and cancer in humans.
“What this verdict tells us,” said Kamuda’s attorney Patrick Salvi Jr., “is that decisions in the boardroom matter to people in their bedroom, in their living room, at the kitchen table.”
In court, he accused Sterigenics of recklessly placing its new sterilization plant near the Kingery Expressway and Interstate 55, close to residential homes. He also accused the company of neglecting to install safety devices that could’ve captured the toxic gas, and of playing down the dangers of the gas.
“The decisions in the boardroom can’t just be about costs … about distorting science, to make it appear as though it’s in your favor, which is exactly what the defendants have done over the years and tried to do during the course of this trial,” Salvi said.
Salvi also accused the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose private equity firm GTCR had a stake in Sterigenics, of delaying the release of Illinois EPA data to the state attorney general’s office following the 2018 revelations about the Willowbrook plant’s potential dangers.
The verdict against Sterigenics likely will affect rulings in other lawsuits.
“We think this ought to set the tone,” Salvi said. “There’s a lot of victims out there.”
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September 19, 2022 at 09:47PM