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Plaintiffs’ lawyer Amanda Hawes sees a host of similarities between California’s agriculture-rich Santa Clara County of 30 years ago and today’s tech-metropolis where workers produce more silicon chips than strawberries. “Literally, the same people went from doing assembly work in the canneries to do assembly work in the high-tech field,” said Hawes, who for much of her career represented field and cannery workers. The transition from the fields to the factories is at the heart of a suit that Hawes, a partner at San Jose, Calif.’s Alexander, Hawes & Audet, is pursuing against some of the biggest names in technology. Hawes is one of a team of attorneys that is on IBM and more than a dozen chemical companies including Eastman Kodak Co. and E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. in courts on both coasts. Hawes has also filed a related suit against National Semiconductor Corp. and its chemical suppliers. At issue are claims by 48 former IBM workers or their families who allege that years of exposure to “clean room” chemicals caused cancer and birth defects. “The ‘clean’ had nothing to do with safe,” Hawes contends. The Santa Clara cases are also sparking a fair amount of interest from plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers who see them as the leading edge of a new and potentially lucrative toxic tort targeting the semiconductor industry and its chemical suppliers. “If the plaintiffs win big, they are going to force another asbestos II,” said an attorney working on the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. But a win is no sure thing. The plaintiffs in Lee Leth v. International Business Machines Corp., 772093, must survive a highly structured case management process – a process they strongly opposed. Attorneys in and outside the case said how the case fares during case management will determine if it becomes a catalyst for other suits. “Any of these toxic cases — because of the amount of effort put in by both sides — are always high-stakes kinds of cases. To the extent it progresses further and further, it becomes more visible on both sides of the bar,” said Bruce Simon, a partner with Cotchett Pitre & Simon in Burlingame, Calif., who handles toxic torts. The claims against IBM and more than a dozen of its chemical suppliers trace back to the 1960s when the first plaintiffs began working at IBM factories in Fishkill, N.Y., and San Jose, Calif. The more than 200 workers and families of deceased workers involved in the suits assembled disk drives and microcircuitry in “clean rooms,” designed to protect electronic components from dust and dirt. Plaintiffs contend they were exposed to chemicals that caused several types of cancer and birth defects. Workers first filed suit in New York in 1996. The first group of Silicon Valley workers filed suit in 1998 claiming fraud, negligence, strict liability, and violations of the labor code. So far, IBM and the other defendants have been successful getting the case whittled down. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge William Elving has already dismissed seven of eight claims against IBM — some because the injuries were covered by workers compensation. One claim alleging breach of labor code remains, accusing the company of fraudulently concealing workplace dangers. Though IBM’s case has been trimmed, the cases against the remaining chemical companies remain largely intact. Two minor chemical companies have already settled out of the suit for $1 million. The key battle thus far is how the court would handle the suit. Elving instituted a highly structured case management order requiring the plaintiffs to first prove general causation — using experts to link the diseases with specific chemicals — followed by specific causation where plaintiffs must link former workers with chemical exposure. Plaintiffs fought the case management order, arguing several rounds of causation would waste time and money. “My clients are dying,” Hawes said. “It’s very time consuming and costly.” Defense attorneys have lauded the process, saying it addresses the important question of the scientific merits of the case first. “This case represents the ability to keep some control over a case like this. The pretrial handling may be somewhat revolutionary. I’ve been in previous cases where it hasn’t been so well handled,” said James Sinunu, a partner with San Francisco-based Adams Nye Sinunu & Walker who is co-counsel for Pacific Pac International Inc., one of the chemical company defendants. With the plaintiffs bringing a list of 136 chemicals to the table as well as dozens of diseases, defense attorneys say the case management process enables the court to shift out chemical-disease combinations early in the process. “It encourages settlement along the way,” said another defense attorney. IBM has settled with two of the plaintiffs in the New York action. The terms of the deal are secret. The Santa Clara cases are currently in the general causation phase, which some observers say is a crucial obstacle. “The causation phase they are in is an important point in the case,” Simon said. “To the extent they come out with a favorable ruling on causation and their expert opinions, it could be a good outcome for that case and other toxic tort cases.” For his part, IBM’s attorney vehemently denies the workers’ claims and said the company feels vindicated by the rulings thus far. “IBM has always believed that the counts they allege in this litigation are without merit,” said Dean Allison, a Los Angeles-based partner with Jones Day Reavis & Pogue’s who is representing IBM. “We believe the rulings the court has made to date confirm that belief and that further rulings by the court will continue to do so.” Hawes, however, contends the suits dispel the notion that Silicon Valley is a land of white-collar jobs that pose no risk to workers: “There are white-collar workers who sit behind a desk and never go into a clean room,” Hawes said, “and there are people who never go anywhere else.”

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