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Jury finds Sterigenics liable for Willowbrook woman's breast cancer, awards $363 million in damages

Sterigenics liable for Willowbrook woman's breast cancer, awards $363 million in damages
Sterigenics liable for Willowbrook woman's breast cancer, jury awards $363 million in damages 02:34

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A jury in the case against Sterigenics and its role in a Willowbrook woman's cancer found the company liable and award her $363 million. 

Sue Kamuda took the medical device sterilization company to court, claiming emissions from the plant near her home caused her cancer.

The company used the carcinogen, ethylene oxide or EO to sterilize medical equipment but said it is not to blame for Kamuda's breast cancer.

The CBS 2 Investigators have been tracking and exposing claims against Sterigenics for years.

The company used the carcinogen ethylene oxide - or EO - to sterilize medical equipment, but Sterigenics claims it is not to blame for Kamuda's breast cancer.

Kamuda is the first of more than 700 plaintiffs who blame Sterigenics for making them sick by emitting the cancer-causing toxin into the surrounding community for decades. 

At a news conference, Kamuda was joined by her attorney Patrick Salvi II, in discussing the verdict. She said she appreciated the jury's attention to the case.

"This ought to set the tone. There are a lot of victims out there. And we're ready to do this again and again if we have to," Salvi said. "This was a step in the right direction."

"I was so relieved," Kamuda said, who added that while it "was a long four years," the main reason to go through with a lawsuit was "to shut them down."

CBS 2 Vault: Inside the CBS 2 Investigators' years-long probe into Sterigenics

Kamuda testified under oath last week that she would have moved out of Willowbrook if she'd known about the dangerous ethylene oxide released by the Sterigenics plant. She fought back tears while on the stand, talking about being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer more than two decades after moving to her home in Willowbrook. 

At the news conference, Salvi said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also helped in laying out the issues caused by EO.

"We felt very confident in our causation case in the fact that the EPA did an extraordinary review of all the literature as it related to ethylene oxide," Salvi said. "At the end of the day, they ignored the fact that environmental exposure is dangerous and there's plenty of evidence to support that."

Salvi said the administration of former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner hindered the investigation into what Sterigenics was doing and when it needed to be reported.

"His (Rauner's) administration did delay the uncovering of further information. There was a letter sent to the Chief of Staff in the Attorney General's office really bemoaning the fact that she couldn't believe that the IEPA, under Alec Messina, who was appointed by Bruce Rauner, was slow rolling information to the Attorney General's Office after this bombshell news came out in Willowbrook. I mean that was pretty unbelievable," Salvi said, adding that information regarding the former governor may have played a role in the delay of information.

"During the course of this case, we were able to learn that, irrespective of what he may have told the public, Governor Rauner did in fact have a financial interest in Sterigenics during the time there were delays getting information to the Attorney General's Office," Salvi said.

Kamuda filed the first lawsuit against Sterigenics and won. The industrial sterilization company accused of releasing ethylene oxide gas, a cancer-causing compound from its suburban facility for decades.

Kamuda is one of more than 700 people who have sued the company since the environmental protection agency published research that showed people living near the plant got cancer at rates nine times above the national average.

For Kamuda it was breast cancer.

"I hope this makes it easier for the rest of the plaintiffs. I hope they get justice in court, too," Kamuda said.

After a five week trial and just one day of deliberations, the jury ruled Sterigenics, parent company Sotera Health and its corporate predecessor Griffith Foods will pay Kamuda $38 million dollars.

They'll also pay another $325 million dollars in punitive damages. Lawyers for the company argue Kamuda's lawyers offered no proof that her breast cancer was caused by ethylene oxide exposure. They plan to appeal.

But for Kamuda and hundreds of others, this is just the beginning. Another trial is set for November and her son has filed his own lawsuit.

"Part of what they didn't know is that my son was diagnosed with lymphoma," Kamuda said. "So that was really hard."

But four years of fighting, Kamuda said was worth it.

"When you hear that guilty verdict in the end, it's worth it," she said. 

During the trial, she described her shock after being told the plant near her home had been emitting a known toxin that whole time. Kamuda told the Daley Center courtroom jury that moving into her dream home with her husband and three children in Willowbrook in 1985 was "probably the happiest day" of her life.  But she didn't know that same year, Sterigenics, moved in as well, just a third of a mile from her home.

The Willowbrook plant used EO from 1985 until it was shut down by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in 2019.

Kamuda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She said it was a shock to her, because she has no family history of breast cancer, and a DNA test showed she didn't have the breast cancer causing gene.

She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation; and it wasn't until 2018 that an EPA study found that people living near the Willowbrook plant faced some the nation's highest cancer risks.

Kamuda said it was a neighbor who alerted her to the findings and invited her to a community meeting. She said she had no idea that Sterigenics had been emitting the toxic gas all of those years, and she would have moved her family if she had known.

On the defense side, there are three corporate defendants - Griffith Laboratories, the original parent company; Sterigenics; and Sotera Health, which purchased Sterigenics in 2004.

The defense has said EO is not to blame for Kamuda's breast cancer, and that experts and studies will show that she wasn't exposed to enough of the toxic gas to make her sick. Karmuda's words of advice:

"Corporations aren't your friend. Find a good support team to help you because you're gonna need it."

The CBS 2 Investigators have been exposing allegations made by Willowbrook residents against this plant for years.

RELATED: What Is Ethylene Oxide? Chemical At Center Of Sterigenics Case

Sterigenics released a statement following the verdict:

We do not believe the jury verdict in this matter reflects the evidence presented in court. Sterigenics is evaluating the verdict and plans to challenge this decision through all appropriate process, including appeals. We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions. We remain committed to our mission of Safeguarding Global Health. 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.

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