SAN JOSE, Calif. — Suzanne Rubio had spent five years assembling and inspecting disks at an IBM Corp. factory when doctors told her she had brain cancer. She continued working while undergoing treatment for two years, not taking a medical leave until April 1990.
Rubio died the next year. She was 33.
Rubio’s relatives and several former IBM employees who developed rare cancers at relatively young ages have a hearing in a San Jose courtroom Friday to determine whether a lawsuit they filed against the technology giant in 1998 finally can go forward.
The plaintiffs allege that Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM knowingly exposed workers to cancer-causing chemicals in its semiconductor factories and lied to them about the health risks. Their lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
IBM contends the case has no merit and is seeking a dismissal.
A jury could begin hearing the allegations against Big Blue and its chemical suppliers next month if Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Robert Baines allows the case to proceed. It would be the first lawsuit to go to trial out of more than 200 filed against IBM by workers in Silicon Valley, New York and Minnesota.
The case has the attention of the semiconductor industry, thousands of Americans who have worked in chip plants and scientists who have long debated the existence of “disease clusters.” Some insist exposure to toxins leads to group outbreaks, an idea others reject as “junk science.”
Movies such as Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action have helped turn a debate among epidemiologists and statisticians into a heated public health issue. Because of the threat of negative publicity and heart-wrenching anecdotes, many companies settle out of court, sometimes for hundreds of millions of dollars.
IBM settled a lawsuit in 2001 by two former employees who alleged that exposure to chemicals caused birth defects in their son. But it has refused to settle the San Jose case. As a result, hundreds of court documents detailing human misery and allegations of corporate secrecy have been made public.
According to court files, hundreds of IBM workers were struck with relatively rare forms of cancer in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They often contracted lymph, blood, breast and brain cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and the very rare multiple myeloma.
The lawsuit could hinge on a “corporate mortality file” IBM used to document the deaths of 30,000 employees from 1969 to 2000.
IBM says the file helped provide death benefits for surviving spouses and contains little more than death certificates.