Judge declines to dismiss lawsuit over toxic Monroe schools

Monsanto is accused of sickening adults and children by exposing them to toxic substances.

MONROE — A company that has faced lawsuits around the country recently sought dismissal of a local case in which families say they were sickened by toxic chemicals at school buildings in Monroe.

A King County judge last week denied Monsanto Co.’s motion to dismiss a complaint that seeks damages for health issues allegedly caused by exposure to synthetic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls. Monsanto produced PCBs for decades. Production was banned by law in 1979, with the Environmental Protection Agency calling PCBs “toxic and persistent chemicals.”

The suit was brought in King County Superior Court in January by attorneys with Seattle’s Friedman Rubin law firm. They are representing adults and children who say they became ill after spending time on the campus at 351 Short Columbia St. It has housed the Sky Valley Education Center, which includes a popular parent partnership program, since 2011. The buildings previously were a high school, junior high and middle school.

The Monroe School District in 2016 spent more than $1 million on cleanup and repairs at the school, and committed to regular environmental testing.

Students, parents and teachers have reported infections, breathing problems, heart palpitations, memory issues, nausea, fatigue, early puberty and other medical complications. Along with Monsanto and its affiliates Pharmacia and Solutia, the families are suing the state, the school district and the Snohomish Health District.

The complaint alleges the school buildings have become “large toxic ‘sinks’ ” because of decades of PCB leaks, spills and fumes. It claims the state, school district and health district did not maintain safe buildings, and that Monsanto is liable for producing and promoting an unsafe product and for failing to warn of the dangers.

Attorneys for Monsanto argued in their motion to dismiss that the 312-page complaint fails to give a “short and plain” statement proving the families are entitled to relief. They also wrote that the claims for personal injury were not specific enough. The complaint names 36 plaintiffs and assumes hundreds more might have been affected by the chemicals.

“Rather than specify each plaintiff’s alleged injury, plaintiffs only generally, and collectively, plead that they have suffered ‘adverse medical consequences’ caused by PCBs,” according to the motion.

Attorneys for the families stated in court papers that personal medical information is to be handled confidentially and a “large disclosure … of comprehensive medical assessments and medical records” is being prepared.

The school district had some of the same concerns as Monsanto regarding a lack of specific health conditions alleged in the complaint, said attorney Patricia Buchanan, representing the district.

“The litigation will move forward now, and we expect to get further information about the plaintiffs’ claims through the discovery process,” she wrote in an email.

Monsanto also urged the court to dismiss a claim of product liability because the families cannot show there was any “deviation from Monsanto’s design specifications or performance standards” in the production of the PCBs.

The families’ attorneys asserted that the PCBs, found in such construction materials as caulking and light ballasts at the school were unsafe to a level beyond what ordinary users of the building would expect, and the company is therefore liable.

Judge Theresa Doyle on May 11 declined to dismiss the suit.

“Though not a model of clarity, the complaint here satisfies (the requirements) and sufficiently alleges its causes of action,” she wrote.

Separate suits have been filed in recent years against Monsanto over harm allegedly done by PCBs, including complaints by the cities of Seattle and Spokane and the states of Washington, Oregon and Ohio.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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