Lawsuit filed by cancer patient Sue Kamuda became the first case against Sterigenics to go to trial
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Monday's verdict represents a vindication not just for plaintiff Susan Kamuda, but for all of those who live and work around the now-shuttered Sterigenics plant.
And while the company has already said they plan on appealing the verdict against it, at least for now, people in Willowbrook are celebrating.
It's been a long four years for 70-year-old Kamuda. But on Monday, the Willowbrook resident and cancer survivor got what she was looking for and more: A guilty verdict and damages to the tune of $363 million. It is the highest jury verdict on record for an individual plaintiff in the state of Illinois, and exceeded the $346 million lawyers for Kamuda asked for in closing arguments Thursday against Sterigenics, parent company Sotera Health and its corporate predecessor Griffith Foods.
"Just hearing the 'guilty, guilty, guilt,' I think I just shut down after that. It was what I wanted to hear," Kamuda said.
It is all that this Willowbrook community wanted to hear as well. It is estimated some 20,000 people live within a mile of the now-shuttered Sterigenics facility. The sterilization company was closed in 2019, months after the EPA released a report showing that people living within 1.5 miles of the plant were ten times more likely to develop cancer. Several schools and one day care center are also located nearby. Facing public pressure, Sterigenics closed the plant permanently.
"I'm really glad that somebody was able to get something for their trouble," said Bob Connelly, a Willowbrook resident. "They were around for quite a long time knowing they weren't keeping the public in safety and yet, they still stayed around and lied."
Kamuda, who has lived within a quarter mile of the former plant for over 40 years, developed breast cancer in 2007. Just last year, her son was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His case is one of more than 700 others against Sterigenics that could potentially still go to trial.
Kamuda had said she does not have any history of cancer in her family and didn't know Sterigenics was releasing the chemical.
"We're talking about cancer causing, pregnancy-ending chemical. It is literally a 'sterilant' that they were allowing people to breathe in unnecessarily," said Attorney Patrick Salvi with Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard.
During the trial, attorneys for Sterigenics challenged the science in the case, alleging that ethylene oxide, the chemical attorneys blame for Kamuda's disease, wasn't emitted in quantities high enough to be harmful.
In reaction to the verdict, a spokesperson for Sterigenics said: "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."
If a settlement isn't reached before then, October is when the next case against Sterigenics is scheduled to go to trial.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.