Three women who had taught at Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe were awarded $185 million in compensatory and punitive damages on Tuesday, after a King County Superior Court jury found the teachers suffered brain injuries from being exposed to toxins manufactured by chemical giant Monsanto and its corporate successors, according to the women’s attorneys.
Now owned by Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the U.S. from about 1929 until the chemical compound used in building products was banned by Congress in 1977, court records filed in the case Erickson et al v. Monsanto Company show.
The lawsuit filed in May 2018 on behalf of teachers Kerry Erickson, Michelle Leahy and Joyce Marquardt is one of more than a dozen filed on behalf of teachers, parents and students who suffered from a variety of ailments, including cancer, after allegedly being poisoned by PCBs at the center at 351 Short Columbia St., in Monroe.
The jury trial began June 9 at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, the records show.
Represented by attorneys Rick Friedman, Henry Jones and Sean Gamble, Erickson was awarded $15 million in compensatory damages, Leahy was awarded $18 million, and Marquardt was awarded $17 million, according to a news release from Seattle law firm Friedman Rubin. Leahy’s husband was awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages.
Additionally, Friedman Rubin successfully argued that Monsanto was subject to punitive damages under Missouri law where Monsanto made its decisions, even though the case was litigated and tried in Washington state, which does not provide for punitive damages in this type of case, the news release says. The trial court agreed that Missouri law applied and the King County jury awarded each of the three teachers $45 million in punitive damages.
Referred to as the “Erickson plaintiffs” in court documents, Erickson, Leahy and Marquardt were the first of more than 200 teachers, students and parents exposed to leaking PCB ballasts in hundreds of fluorescent light fixtures used at the school to reach trial, their attorneys said.
In an emailed statement, Bayer MG Monsanto said it plans to pursue post-trial motions and an appeal if necessary. The PCB testing at the school showed “extremely” low levels and the plaintiff tests contained the “normal” amounts of PCB levels found in the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the statement said.
The evidence in the case does not show the women were exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs or that those levels caused injuries, Bayer said, challenging the methodologies the plaintiffs used.
“These are historic claims that relate to products Monsanto has not produced in more than 40 years and are unrelated to any ongoing business of Monsanto, and now Bayer,” the statement said.
The school, built in 1950, was first home to Monroe High School until 1977, then became Monroe Junior High School for the next decade, according to the complaint. From 1987 to 2011, it operated as Monroe Middle School.
Sky Valley Education Center, an alternative school for students in kindergarten through high school, operated for about 10 years at a warehouse rented by the Monroe School District. It was relocated to the former campus of Monroe Middle School in 2011, the teachers’ complaint says.
The complaint notes the Snohomish County Health District for years found the school had substandard lighting and ventilation but didn’t take any action against the school district until 2016, when it ordered that the school’s buildings be repaired. PCBs were also found in the caulking around windows.
“In addition to PCB contamination, the school buildings were contaminated with metals (including lead) in the school drinking water, radon in the indoor air, disturbed asbestos fibers [and] molds, including black mold,” says the complaint.
Between December 2015 and April 2016, 81 people associated with the school had reported health issues to a county health inspector, including autoimmune diseases, asthma, cognitive problems, dizziness and fatigue, and precocious puberty, according to the complaint. (Precocious puberty is when puberty begins in girls before age 8 and in boys before age 9.)
Two teachers who taught science, technology, engineering and mathematics were diagnosed with cancer after 2011; three parents of STEM students died of cancer and two children also reportedly died, the complaint says. Miscarriages, endocrine disorders and neurological disorders were also reported.
Erickson was a math teacher who organized the school’s STEM program and Leahy taught math, science and art. Marquardt primarily taught Spanish but also journalism and humanities and organized a model U.N. program and several other extracurricular programs for students, according to a partial transcript of Friedman’s opening statement included in the court record.
After all three became sicker and sicker, they made the decision to leave Sky Valley, the transcript says.
In its answer to the complaint, Monsanto issued a general denial to each of the allegations and denied that the teachers were entitled to any relief, court records show. Its later requests to have the case tossed out on summary judgment were denied.
“If Plaintiffs have sustained injuries or losses as alleged in the Complaint, such injuries and losses were only sustained after Plaintiffs knowingly, voluntarily and willfully assumed the risk of injury,” Monsanto’s attorneys wrote in answer to the complaint.
The Sky Valley Education Center has since been deemed safe by the Snohomish County Health Department and the state, school district spokesperson Tamara Krache said in an email. Air quality concerns and “possible” PCB contamination at the school was brought to the Monroe School District’s attention during the 2013-14 school year.
The school district cleaned fixtures that could have been contaminated and since then have “aggressively” and “proactively” worked to address air quality concerns at the education center, Krache said. The school district has worked with environmental consulting agencies to test the air quality indoors, has replaced aging portions of the building and has complied with state and federal laws.
Krache did not respond to questions about how the school’s condition before the cleaning affected students and staff.
“The safety and well-being of our students and staff have always been and continues to be our No. 1 priority,” Krache said.