Students and parents who say they suffered brain injuries from exposure to toxic chemicals at a Monroe public school were awarded $62 million by a jury on Wednesday in the second successful lawsuit involving noxious conditions at the school.
More than 200 students, parents and teachers from Sky Valley Education Center, an alternative school southeast of Snohomish, allege in a series of lawsuits that they were poisoned by leaky light ballasts laden with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a type of now-banned chemical that is linked to several illnesses.
They’ve filed 22 lawsuits in all against Bayer Pharmaceuticals, which in 2018 acquired chemical giant Monsanto, once the sole manufacturer of PCBs, with the first two resulting in jury verdicts of $247 million combined. The rest are awaiting trial.
The plaintiffs say they developed neurological problems, skin lesions, cancer, hormonal diseases and other illnesses after months or years on campus.
“So many students and teachers had to leave Sky Valley because they were just getting too sick,” said Michelle Leahy, a former teacher and a plaintiff in the first successful lawsuit involving Sky Valley. In July, a King County Superior Court jury awarded Leahy and two other teachers $185 million in damages.
The plaintiffs in Wednesday’s verdict included four former students, two parents and an adult who spent time on campus for a community music program, said Rick Friedman, a Seattle attorney representing Sky Valley plaintiffs.
Bayer Pharmaceuticals said in a statement that it disagrees with the jury verdicts in both cases. It plans to file an appeal of the Wednesday verdict, as it did with the July verdict.
The $247 million awarded so far includes compensatory and punitive damages. Washington state doesn’t typically allow punitive damages in this type of case, but plaintiffs’ lawyers successfully argued that laws in Missouri, where Monsanto was headquartered, applied to the case.
The company said students and parents weren’t exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs, and instead were exposed to “normal” levels found in U.S. populations. “We continue to believe that the undisputed evidence in this case does not support the conclusions that plaintiffs were exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs … or that any exposure could have possibly caused their claimed injuries,” the statement reads.
PCBs were a fixture in electrical equipment until they were banned by federal officials in 1979. The chemical compound is among the most widely studied environmental toxin, with research linking PCB exposure and a number of diseases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The national tragedy is this stuff is still in an estimated 30% of schools,” Friedman said. He cited a 2016 report by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, which found that as many as 14 million students nationwide might be exposed to PCBs in old electrical equipment or building materials on campuses.
The Sky Valley campus, built in 1950, housed Monroe Middle School until 2011, when the Monroe School District consolidated middle schools and closed the campus. Later that year, district officials moved Sky Valley students to the campus, at 351 Short Columbia St.
Sky Valley Education Center is a parent-partnership program run by the Monroe School District that offers co-ops and group classes to home-schooled students. Many parents join their children on Sky Valley’s campus for classes, tutoring and other sessions.
Teachers at Sky Valley said fluorescent lights caught fire and dripped noxious oil onto classroom floors, exposing students to PCBs between 2011 and 2016, according to lawsuit complaints.
Leahy, 61, said she watched students and colleagues lose simple memory and cognitive functions. She was diagnosed with early-stage uterine cancer and developed temporary eyesight problems within a year of working at Sky Valley.
“I knew it was slowly killing me,” said Leahy, who worked for the school between 2000 and 2015. “But I loved that job so much. I loved those kids. It came to a point where I had to ask: ‘Do I stay and die?’ ”
Teachers and parents complained for years to school administrators and health officials about potential toxins on campus before the district took action, according to the lawsuit. Dozens reported symptoms of toxic exposure to a county health inspector in 2015 and 2016, court filings show.
A spokesperson for the Monroe School District did not respond to an interview request Thursday. A district spokesperson told The Seattle Times earlier this year, after the $185 million verdict, that the Sky Valley campus has been deemed safe by health officials after they cleaned up contaminants.
In the second trial, the jury awarded students between $5 million and $8 million in compensatory damages, as well as $5 million each in punitive damages. The adult plaintiffs received awards ranging from $600,000 to $1.5 million, as well as $5 million each in punitive damages.
Bayer attorneys played a role in grouping plaintiffs into separate lawsuits and deciding the order in which they’d go to trial, Friedman said.
The plaintiffs were grouped based on shared experiences on campus or similar alleged health impacts. Trials are scheduled for some of the remaining plaintiffs in January, May and June, court records show.