More than 500 General Electric Co. employees have sued Monsanto Co. along with two related companies, claiming they were exposed to toxic chemicals manufactured for decades by Monsanto, the company said Wednesday.
The product liability suit, which seeks $1 billion in punitive and $1 billion in actual damages, names Monsanto, Pharmacia, which is now owned by Pfizer Inc., and bankrupt Solutia Inc. and was filed in mid-December by 590 current employees of a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York.
The suit claims personal injury and fear of future disease related to contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned by Congress in 1978 and found to be harmful to human health.
The suit claims that Monsanto knew of the hazards of PCBs but continued to make the chemicals because of their profitability. And even though Monsanto stopped making the chemicals nearly 30 years ago, the lawsuit claims the hazardous chemicals have been leaking from creek beds and landfills, further exposing the GE workers.
Monsanto was served with the lawsuit the last week of December and disclosed the details Wednesday in conjunction with release of its first-quarter earnings.
Monsanto spokesman Glynn Young said any liability likely rested with General Electric, which was responsible for disposal of the chemicals.
"We're confident that we've got no liability for these claims. Where the liability is, if there is liability, will be determined over time," Young said.
But plaintiffs attorney Lawrence Biondi said that, under product liability laws, Monsanto is ultimately responsible.
"Monsanto manufactured the product. They would be responsible," Biondi said. "Whether or not they want to go after GE is their decision."
Biondi said the GE workers have a host of health problems, including cancer, liver disease and heart problems, and blood tests have shown excessive levels of PCBs in their blood.
He said a similar lawsuit would be filed soon against Monsanto on behalf of GE retirees.
Monsanto manufactured PCBs from 1935 to 1977 and the GE worker lawsuit is but one of a series of claims alleging injurious contamination.
Monsanto and Solutia are currently involved in cleaning up PCB-contaminated homes and property in Alabama after the companies were hit with $600 million in damages related to PCB pollution there.
Monsanto spun off its chemicals business as Solutia in 1997. Solutia filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, claiming Monsanto-related chemical liability issues contributed to its downfall. Solutia officials declined to comment Wednesday.
Blue-chip conglomerate General Electric said the facility in question was one of the largest and oldest GE plants in the country. It was used to make electric motors, gas turbines, wire and cable and other products. For more than a decade, GE and the state have been working to clean chemical contaminants from the site.
Last year, the state gave final approval to the company's remediation plan, which has already cost GE about $16 million, said company spokesman Tom Schwendler.
"We know of no evidence that PCB exposure caused GE employees in Schenectady any of the adverse health effects alleged in this lawsuit," Schwendler added.
Pharmacia representatives could provide immediate comment. Pharmacia is involved because it acquired Monsanto in 2000. Monsanto then was spun off as an independent agricultural products and technology company in 2002.
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