First-of-its-kind Ethylene Oxide Verdict Awards Record Damages Against Defendant Sterigenics

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On September 19, 2022, a Cook County (Illinois) jury awarded $363 million to 70-year-old plaintiff Susan Kamuda  in the first of many lawsuits against industrial sterilization company Sterigenics.  These lawsuits accuse the company of a reckless, decades-long pollution of Willowbrook, Illinois with ethylene oxide.  The jury in this case went beyond the damages requested by Ms. Kamuda, who lived within a quarter-mile of Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility for more than 30 years.  While Ms. Kamuda only asked for $21 million in compensatory damages, the jury awarded her $38 million, in addition to the entire $325 million she requested in punitive damages, making its verdict the highest on record for an individual plaintiff in the state of Illinois

The jury found Sterigenics 65% liable, parent company Sotera Health 30% liable, and former parent company Griffith Foods 5% liable for the damages.

Sterigenics’ problems with its Willowbrook facility began in 2018, when regulators raised concerns about the environmental and health risks posed by its use of ethylene oxide to sterilize medical supplies.  Sterigenics permanently closed its plant in 2019 after the Environmental Protection Agency released a report showing that people living near it were 10 times more likely to develop cancer.  Illinois enacted stricter emissions limits on ethylene oxide after the Willowbrook plant’s 2019 closure.

In its defense, Sterigenics argued that the science did not support Ms. Kamuda’s assertion that emissions from its plant caused her breast cancer, and challenged her reliance on risk-assessment and regulatory studies while pointing to other negative environmental factors in the area as a reason for its higher cancer risk.  Ms. Kamuda’s counsel argued that Sterigenics knew of the hazard posed by its activities, underplayed its use of ethylene oxide in its reports to regulators, and failed to install emissions controls it had known about for decades.

Sterigenics is expected to appeal the jury’s decision; it is currently facing more than 760 lawsuits over emissions from its Willowbrook facility.  This is the first ethylene oxide verdict in the country, and the size of the verdict will no doubt encourage plaintiffs’ firms to search for clients who have a colorable claim that a health issue they have could be related to such emissions.  But only time and subsequent verdicts will tell whether the result in Ms. Kamuda’s case is an outlier or has set the standard for ethylene-oxide litigation.