Jury says Sterigenics should pay cancer survivor $363 million

Around the same time that Sue Kamuda moved to Willowbrook in the mid-1980s, a Chicago company chose the western suburbs as the new site for its expanding business of sterilizing medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and spices.

Two low buildings, tucked behind retailers and restaurants on Kingery Highway, didn’t get much attention until 2018, when the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed people living nearby were at risk to some of the highest cancer risks in the country due to toxic air pollution.

The culprit: ethylene oxide, or EtO, an odorless gas pumped into fumigation chambers inside the sterilization facility and then released into surrounding quarters.

Kamuda, a retired school administrator, suspected she had finally found out why she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She had been breathing EtO for years at her home a third of a mile away.

On Monday, a Cook County jury agreed, finding the facility’s original owner and two corporate successors liable for $363 million in damages for exposing Kamuda to poison gas. The verdict is the largest ever for an individual in Illinois.

Sterigenics, the newest owner, should pay $220 million in punitive damages, jurors have decided. They also imposed penalties of $100 million on parent company Sotera Health and $5 million on Griffith Foods, the current name of the original owner.

Kamuda should receive an additional $38 million for past and future loss of normal life, emotional distress, disfigurement and shortened life expectancy, the jurors decided.

She is the first of more than 700 people to apply for an award from Oak Brook-based Sterigenics.

The verdict topped the $346 million his lawyer, Patrick Salvi II, had urged the jury to sanction during closing arguments.

“I hope this makes it easier for all of them,” Kamuda told reporters afterwards, revealing for the first time that one of his sons had been diagnosed with cancer and had filed his own lawsuit against him. the company.

Asked what she learned from a four-year legal battle that led to Monday’s jury verdict, Kamuda described it as grueling but ultimately worth it.

“Corporations are not your friends,” she said. “Find a good support team to help you because you’re going to need it.”

During a trial that lasted more than five weeks, emails and documents highlighted on a courtroom screen showed the companies had long known that ethylene oxide is extremely dangerous. But the companies delayed installing pollution control equipment and tried to undermine federal regulations that would require costly upgrades to sterilization facilities, the documents show.

“They didn’t treat EtO like a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM machine,” Salvi said.

Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement they may appeal the verdict.

“We do not believe that the jury’s verdict in this case reflects the evidence presented in court,” the companies’ statement said. “We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against allegations regarding our operations and our ethylene oxide emissions.”

Lawyers for the companies argued that Salvi provided no evidence that Kamuda’s breast cancer was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide. They also brought in industry-connected scientists who tried to persuade the jury that the Willowbrook facility never posed a danger to its neighbors.

The now closed sterilization plant was built in 1984 by the company now known as Griffith Foods. Sotera Health absorbed Sterigenics after a series of mergers, corporate restructurings and private equity deals, including one brokered by a company co-founded by former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.

Officials in the Republican governor’s administration knew about the elevated cancer risks at least eight months before the public knew about it, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2018. He first downplayed the findings, then sneered. joined other elected officials who called for the closure of the Willowbrook plant.

Afternoon briefing

Afternoon briefing

Daily

The best stories from the editors of the Chicago Tribune, delivered to your inbox every afternoon.

Rauner’s stake in Sterigenics later became a campaign issue during his re-election bid, when Governor JB Pritzker, a Democrat from Chicago, defeated him at the polls.

Sterigenics closed the plant in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state lawmakers, members of Congress, and Pritzker, who at some point that year banned the company from use ethylene oxide.

After monitoring EtO levels in and around Willowbrook for several months, the EPA concluded that pollution from Sterigenics increased the risk of developing cancer for people living up to 25 miles away. Other suburbs with the highest risk included Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.

Other industrial sources of ethylene oxide across the country continue to operate legally under federal regulations that have not been updated to reflect the latest EPA toxic gas assessment. President Joe Biden’s administration promises to enact tougher limits on pollution from sterilization facilities, eight of which are still operated by Sterigenics.

EPA officials announced this month they will hold public meetings in nearly two dozen communities where breathing ethylene oxide from sterilizers is responsible for more than one in 10 cancer cases. 000 people exposed during their lifetime.

In 2018, this list included neighborhoods surrounding a Medline Industries facility in the northern suburb of Waukegan. Medline has since installed new pollution controls and significantly reduced ethylene oxide emissions. EPA officials say they no longer view the company’s pollution as posing unacceptable health risks.

mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

Leave a Comment