CHICAGO (AP) — A jury has awarded $363 million to a woman who alleged that a now-shuttered suburban Chicago plant that sterilized medical equipment exposed residents to a toxic industrial gas and gave her breast cancer.
After a five-week trial, the Cook County jurors on Monday awarded Sue Kamuda $38 million in compensatory damages for the past and future loss of a normal life, emotional distress, disfigurement and shortened life expectancy, and $325 million in punitive damages.
Kamuda, 70, developed breast cancer in 2007 despite having no predisposition to it, her lawyers said. She is the first of more than 700 people seeking damages from Oak Brook, Illinois-based Sterigenics to go to trial over health claims over the plant’s releases of ethylene oxide gas.
Those lawsuits have been filed against Sterigenics since 2018, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published research showing people living near the plant in the DuPage County village of Willowbrook faced some of the nation’s highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.
Sterigenics, the former plant's most recent owner, was ordered to pay Kamuda $220 million in punitive damages; parent company Sotera Health was directed to pay $100 million and Griffith Foods, the current name of the plant’s original owner, $5 million.
Monday’s verdict exceeded the $346 million Kamuda’s lawyers sought in closing arguments last Thursday against Sterigenics.
“It was such a relief,” Kamuda said of the verdict. The retired school administrator told reporters one of her sons has been diagnosed with cancer and has filed his own lawsuit against the company.
Lawyers for the companies argued that Kamuda’s attorneys offered no proof that her breast cancer was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide, an odorless gas pumped into fumigation chambers inside the sterilization plant and then released into surrounding neighborhoods.
The companies also brought in industry-connected scientists who tried to persuade jurors the plant never posed a danger to its neighbors, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Emails and documents presented during the trial showed the companies knew long ago that ethylene oxide is extremely dangerous, but delayed installing pollution-control equipment. The documents also showed the companies attempted to undermine federal regulations that would require costly improvements at sterilization facilities, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The 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. Amid public pressure, Sterigenics closed the plant permanently later that year.
Patrick Salvi Jr., one of Kamuda’s attorneys, said Monday's verdict likely will affect rulings in other lawsuits.
“We think this ought to set the tone. There’s a lot of victims out there," he said.
Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement they might appeal 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 companies said.
“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, Illinois 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.