CVN screenshot of defense attorney Thomas Goutman delivering his opening statement
Seattle, WA - A Washington state court jury heard opening statements Wednesday on behalf of three teachers who claim they developed brain damage due to exposure to toxic chemicals manufactured by Bayer-owned Monsanto, that were present in the light fixtures and caulking of a local school.
Plaintiffs Kerry Erickson, Joyce Marquardt, and Michelle Leahy all worked at the Sky Valley Educational Center, in a decades-old facility, where they claim to have suffered serious neurological injuries from prolonged exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, from 2011 to 2015.
Before being banned in the 1970’s, PCBs were used for a wide range of industrial purposes, from fire insulation to food packaging, and also in older fluorescent lights and building caulk.
Agrochemical giant Monsanto was the sole US manufacturer of PCB’s, which the Environmental Protection Agency now considers dangerous toxic carcinogens.
Monsanto denies the allegations, claiming the level of PCB exposure at the school was low and that plaintiffs' alleged injuries could be the result of other safety issues at the 70-year-old facility, like mold.
The case is one of the first major in-person toxic tort trials to take place since courts began calling in juries again after the pandemic shutdown. Attorneys delivered their opening statements in the cavernous hall of a convention center normally used for events like auctions and trade shows that has been repurposed to accommodate large-scale, in-person trials.
Attorney Rick Friedman of Friedman Rubin, representing the plaintiffs, did not tell jurors a specific dollar amount he would seek at the conclusion of the trial (expected to last six weeks), but he did indicate he planned to ask for punitive damages in addition to direct compensation for the three teachers.
“At the end of the trial we’re going to ask for a verdict that compensates these teachers of course, but more importantly that punishes or deters Monsanto and other chemical companies from creating this kind of mess and then walking away from it,” Friedman told the jury during his opening statement.
Friedman gave jurors a preview of evidence that he said would show Monsanto knew PCBs posed a health risk to the public but withheld that information and chose to continue manufacturing and selling the long-lasting chemical compounds.
“You’re going to see the actual contemporaneous documents generated by Monsanto as it did the various things we’re talking about,” Friedman said. “Then you’re going to hear the testimony of Monsanto’s witnesses as they try to explain away what’s in those documents.”
Friedman told jurors the teachers independently went to their primary care doctors after developing troubling neurological symptoms, and that blood testing only revealed PCBs in their systems after doctors couldn’t explain their worsening conditions.
Friedman described the “bone-crushing fatigue” the women suffer, in addition to the supposed serious cognitive effects of the exposure, which allegedly made even simple mental tasks like remembering students’ names difficult for the teachers.
“Everything they took for granted that they could do with ease and efficiency is now a struggle,” Friedman said.
Representing Monsanto, defense attorney Thomas Goutman of Shook Hardy & Bacon conceded that PCBs were present in the school, but argued the chemicals were not a substantial factor in causing the three teachers’ health problems.
Goutman told the jury the levels of PCBs detected in the teachers’ blood tests were lower than what is typically found in the United States population, and that no students or teachers from the Sky Valley facility showed any unusual levels of PCB exposure in their blood work.
“What does that tell you about their theory that school has really high levels of PCBs,” Goutman asked.
Goutman also argued that the types of PCBs found in the teachers blood did not match the specific type of PCBs used in the school’s fluorescent lights.
Goutman acknowledged that the three teachers had health problems, but he argued they were due to the dilapidated condition of the aging school, which he told jurors the women had described in previous depositions as “filthy” and “old and run-down” and “the grossest, most disgusting building.”
He argued the school had an extensive black mold problem, and that exposure to mold and dust was a more likely explanation for the teachers’ illness. He said the treating physicians for all three women diagnosed them with allergies to mold.
Goutman said that the teachers' medical records would also show many of the ailments they link to PCB exposure resulted from pre-existing conditions.
“Many of the conditions the teachers claim is caused by PCBs they were in fact treated for before they started at SVC (Sky Valley),” Goutman said.
Both sides told jurors they would rely extensively on expert witness testimony in the coming weeks, with regards to both the alleged health risks from PCB exposure and also the teachers’ individual medical conditions.
CVN will remain present for the full trial, including all expert witness testimony, with access to the gavel-to-gavel proceedings available live in real-time and also on-demand.
The case is captioned Kerry L. Erickson, et al. v. Monsanto Company, et al., case number 18-2-11915-4 in the Superior Court for the State of Washington in King County.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org