3 Monroe teachers awarded $185 million for chemical exposure

Chemical giant Monsanto was ordered to pay Sky Valley Education Center teachers in the first of many lawsuits.

MONROE — Three Monroe public school teachers have been awarded $185 million in damages after a King County Superior Court jury found the chemical company Monsanto was responsible for health issues caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in fluorescent lights.

The teachers, who worked at the Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe, said they suffered brain damage from exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the fluorescent light fixtures at the school, according to The Associated Press.

“This is a big step in holding Monsanto accountable for poisoning every man, woman and child in North America,” Rick Friedman, one of the attorneys representing the women, said in a statement. “If politicians won’t make Monsanto clean up its mess, juries will.”

The four-page verdict was reached Tuesday, according to King County Superior Court records. The case was tried before Judge Douglass North. The $185 million award was first reported by The Seattle Times.

The verdict was more than what was requested by Friedman, who had suggested the teachers be awarded a minimum of $10 million each and punitive damages of three times the compensatory damages. Friedman, Henry Jones and Sean Gamble of the Friedman Rubin law firm represented the women.

Kerry Erickson, Michelle Leahy and Joyce Marquardt were awarded compensatory damages ranging from $15 million to $18 million each, as well as punitive damages of $45 million each, for Monsanto’s “reckless disregard of safety” and to deter future conduct by the company and others, the law firm said in a statement.

The trial court awarded the $45 million in punitive damages after the law firm argued that Monsanto was subject to Missouri law, the state where Monsanto made its decisions. Although the case was litigated in Washington, the trial court agreed that Missouri law applied. Washington does not provide for punitive damages in this type of case, the law firm said.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, said the company disagreed with the verdict and might appeal, according to The Associated Press.

“The undisputed evidence in this case does not support the conclusions that plaintiffs were exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs at the Sky Valley Education Center (SVEC) or that any exposure could have possibly caused their claimed injuries,” Bayer spokesperson Susan Skiles Luke said in a statement.

The company said the light ballast products that were the focus of the lawsuit have not been produced in more than 40 years.

The case, filed in 2018, is the first of 22 lawsuits representing the claims of 200 teachers, students and parents who spent time at the Sky Valley Education Center. The group members have reported a host of medical complications, including infections, breathing problems, heart palpitations, memory issues and nausea.

In 2015, a teacher was taken by ambulance from the school due to neurological symptoms, and at least three teachers had submitted air quality reports over the years, the 2018 complaint said. Photos filed with the court come from about a dozen people who have symptoms attributed to their time at Sky Valley, including images that showed blisters, peeling skin and a cyst on the scalp of a girl.

Sky Valley Education Center is within multiple old school buildings originally built in 1950 that were previously a high school, junior high and middle school prior to Sky Valley’s move there in 2011.

The law firm wrote in the 2018 court complaint that the school district and the Snohomish Health District “did not appear to take the concerns seriously” until mid-2016 and that they failed to protect students, staff and visitors by not maintaining safe school buildings.

Monroe school officials said they were aware of the verdict and noted that the verdict was not against the school district.

The district has cleaned all affected fixtures in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards since air quality concerns were raised during the 2013-14 school year, Monroe School District spokesperson Tamara Krache said in a statement.

Additionally, the district has “aggressively” and “proactively” worked to address all concerns by collaborating with environmental consulting agencies, complying with state and federal laws, and replacing aging areas of the building as needed, Krache said.

In 2016, the district spent more than $1 million on cleanup and repairs.

Families and teachers told The Daily Herald that they wanted Sky Valley moved to a new location. Many wanted the building torn down.

At Sky Valley, Erickson taught math, Leahy taught math, science and art, and Marquadt taught Spanish, as well as journalism and humanities, according to the court record of a partial transcript of Friedman’s opening statement.

The chemical giant filed a motion to dismiss the complaint in 2018, arguing the claims for personal injury were not specific enough. The motion was denied by a King County judge.

A 2019 Associated Press investigation found that millions of fluorescent light ballasts containing PCBs probably remain in schools and day care centers across the United States four decades after the chemicals were banned over concerns that they could cause cancer and other illnesses.

Many older buildings also have caulk, ceiling tiles, floor adhesives and paint made with PCBs, which sometimes have been found at levels far higher than allowed by law.

PCBs are mixtures of compounds manufactured by Monsanto and widely used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979.

Monsanto also has faced a deluge of litigation over its weed killer Roundup. Last year, Bayer said it would pay more than $10 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits claiming Roundup causes cancer. The company said the settlement involves about 125,000 filed and unfiled claims.

The King County jury verdict on Tuesday comes a year after Monsanto reached agreement to pay the state of Washington $95 million to settle another lawsuit involving PCBs.

In June 2020, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that Monsanto would pay that sum to resolve a lawsuit over the company’s manufacturing, marketing and distribution of PCBs. It is Washington’s largest independent state environmental recovery against a single company.

In that case, which was filed in 2016, the state argued Monsanto produced PCBs for decades while hiding what it knew about the toxic chemicals’ harm to human health and the environment. Monsanto was the only U.S. company to produce PCBs from 1935 until it was banned in the late 1970s.

German multi-national corporation Bayer purchased Monsanto in 2018, two years after Ferguson filed his lawsuit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hannah Sheil: hannah.sheil@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3463. Twitter @thehannahsheil

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