Jury says Sterigenics should pay $363 million to Illinois woman for exposing her to cancer-causing ethylene oxide

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS
·2 min read

Sterigenics, its parent company and a corporate predecessor should pay $363 million in damages for exposing a Willowbrook, Illinois, woman and thousands of others to cancer-causing ethylene oxide pollution, a Cook County jury decided Monday.

After a five-week trial and a day of deliberations, the jury decided breast-cancer survivor Sue Kamuda should get $38 million from the companies. Jurors imposed another $325 million in punitive damages as punishment for decades of toxic air pollution that drifted into neighborhoods near a former Willowbrook sterilization facility.

Sterigenics should pay $220 million, parent company Sotera Health $100 million and Griffith Foods $5 million, the jury decided.

The verdict exceeded the $346 million that Kamuda’s attorney, Patrick Salvi II, had urged the jury to assess during his closing arguments.

Kamuda is the first of more than 700 people seeking recompense from Sterigenics, an Oak Brook, Illinois-based company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments.

Salvi and his colleagues accused the companies of being more interested in profits than public health.

Emails and corporate documents highlighted on a courtroom screen showed the companies knew long ago that ethylene oxide, or EtO, is extremely dangerous. But the companies delayed installing pollution-control equipment and attempted to undermine federal regulations that would require costly improvements at sterilization facilities, the documents showed.

“They did not treat EtO like a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM,” Salvi said.

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

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

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

The now-closed Willowbrook facility was built in the early 1980s by the company now known as Griffith Foods. Sotera Health absorbed Sterigenics after a series of mergers, corporate restructurings and private equity deals.

After monitoring ethylene oxide concentrations in and around Willowbrook for several months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Sterigenics’ pollution increased the risk of developing cancer for people living as far as 25 miles away from the sterilization facility.

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