Days after a federal judge ruled Cook County courts could hear the lawsuits brought against medical device sterilization company Sterigenics, the number of lawsuits accusing the company of causing cancer has tripled in one day.
On Monday, Aug. 19, and Tuesday, Aug. 20, 32 new lawsuits were filed against Sterigenics in Cook County Circuit Court, adding to the 11 complaints pending in court for almost a year.
The new lawsuits were filed by attorneys from a host of Chicago-based law firms, including Romanucci & Blandin; Salvi Schostok & Pritchard; Hart McLaughlin & Eldridge; Power Rogers & Smith; and Tomasik Kotin Kasserman; and the Collins Law Firm, of Naperville.
On Tuesday, the law firms announced the new filings in a joint release, and held a press conference in the Loop.
All of the complaints centered on claims emissions of the compound known as ethylene dioxide caused cancer in those living and working near Sterigenics’ sterilization plant in suburban Willowbrook. The complaints claim emissions from Sterigenics have harmed the health of people living near the plant, harmed businesses and decreased property values in the region, among other allegations.
“Sterigenics has been emitting ethylene oxide into the air near Willowbrook for decades, knowing that it is a carcinogen with potency and danger on par with radiation,” said attorney Antonio Romanucci of Romanucci & Blandin in the prepared statement. “Hundreds of thousands of have been exposed and tens of thousands have been sickened. Now, thousands of victims are being represented in these lawsuits seeking justice.”
In the complaints, the impact of ethylene oxide emissions was described as “America’s Chernobyl.” The description referred to the conditions that followed the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986 under the administration to the former Soviet Union.
The lawsuits are similar to 11 others filed in the summer and fall of 2018. Those complaints followed the release of reports from the federal government, which asserted air quality measurements equated to an elevated cancer risk for people living near the Sterigenics Willowbrook sterilization plant, as a result of the company’s use of ethylene oxide gas.
Sterigenics has contested the report’s conclusions. The company has repeatedly noted it has never exceeded the emissions limits set by its state operating permit or by federal clean air rules.
Sterigenics said ethylene oxide is essential to its method of sterilizing surgical instruments and other medical devices, including implant devices and surgical kits. Sterigenics says more than half of all medical devices and 90 percent of all surgical kits used in U.S. operating rooms are sterilized using ethylene oxide.
Amid a public outcry that followed the release of the federal reports, and citing those reports, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office filed suit against Sterigenics, seeking a court order shutting the plant down. The state has argued Sterigenics’ compliance with federal and state emissions rules is irrelevant, asserting instead the company created a public nuisance by emitting ethylene oxide at all.
The attorney general’s legal action was followed by a so-called “seal order” on the Willowbrook plant, imposed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency under Gov. JB Pritzker, which barred Sterigenics from using its stores of ethylene oxide, shuttering the plant ever since.
Recently, however, the company and IEPA announced a deal to create a legal path for the company to reopen the plant. Under the so-called “consent order,” Sterigenics would need to install new equipment to scrub most ethylene oxide emissions and comply with a strict new state law signed in June by Pritzker.
That order has been opposed by a group of community activists and the local governments of Willowbrook and other nearby communities. A DuPage County judge is expected to rule on the consent order in early September.
However, as the state pursued its actions against Sterigenics, the private lawsuits also were brought against the company. Those actions were bogged down for months, after Sterigenics sought to move the cases from Cook County Circuit Court to federal court in Chicago. Sterigenics asserted the lawsuits belonged in federal court because they represented an attempt by the plaintiffs to rewrite federal emissions limits using private lawsuits, and penalize Sterigenics for its otherwise legal emissions.
Last week, however, a federal judge in Chicago ruled those lawsuits actually belong in Cook County court, because she said whether or not Sterigenics abided by EPA rules has no bearing on the legal claims brought by the plaintiffs.
Further, the judge said the plaintiffs could also sue two Sterigenics plant managers individually. Those individual defendants, as well as a private equity firm identified as GTCR LLC, which holds an ownership stake in Sterigenics, were added by the plaintiffs to defeat so-called diversity jurisdiction, a legal term which describes a lawsuit brought by someone in one legal jurisdiction against someone in an entirely different one. In this instance, Sterigenics is legally considered to be based in Ohio, while the plaintiffs are in Illinois, which would have been enough to send the case to federal court.
However, the additional defendants are located in Illinois, allowing the plaintiffs to sidestep Sterigenics’ jurisdictional claims.
The additional 32 complaints were filed about three days after the federal judge’s ruling.
In the release accompanying the new legal filings, the plaintiffs lawyers accused the company of knowing since the 1990s ethylene oxide emissions were allegedly harmful, yet “the company and its stakeholders did nothing.”
The plaintiffs also challenged the company’s claims concerning its choice of using ethylene oxide, saying they believe Sterigenics could have used other alternatives. Sterigenics has said those alternatives could damage medical devices and boost infection risk.
In prior statements, a trade association representing medical device makers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have expressed concerns about the availability of key medical and surgical tools if sterilization plants that rely on ethylene oxide are closed.