Sterigenics, its parent company and corporate predecessor, must pay $363 million in damages for exposing a Willowbrook woman and thousands of others to cancer-causing ethylene oxide contamination, a Cook County jury ruled Monday.
After a five week trial and one day of deliberations, the jury decided that breast cancer survivor Sue Kamuda should receive $38 million from the companies. Jurors awarded another $325 million in punitive damages for decades of toxic air pollution that plagued neighborhoods near a former Willowbrook sterilization facility.
Sterigenics must 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 closing arguments.
Kamuda is the first of more than 700 people seeking a reward from Sterigenics, an Oak Brook-based company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments.
Salvi and his colleagues accused the companies of being more interested in profits than in public health.
Emails and corporate documents highlighted on a courtroom screen showed that companies have long known that ethylene oxide, or EtO, is extremely dangerous. But the companies delayed installing contamination 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,” Salvi said.
Top news picks from Chicago Tribune editors, delivered to your inbox every afternoon.
Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement that they may appeal the verdict.
“We do not believe that the jury’s verdict in this matter reflects the evidence presented in court,” the companies’ statement said. “We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against allegations about our operations and emissions of ethylene oxide.”
Lawyers for the companies argued that Salvi offered no evidence that Kamuda’s breast cancer was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide. They also brought in scientists connected to the industry who tried to persuade the jury that 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 US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that contamination from Sterigenics increased the risk of developing cancer for people living up to a distance away. 25 miles from the sterilization facility. Other suburbs with the highest risks include Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.
Sterigenics closed the plant in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state legislators, members of Congress and Governor J. B. Pritzkerwho at one point that year banned the company from using ethylene oxide.
Please check back for updates.