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$275M verdict for toxic exposures at Monroe school, adding to swelling cost

Oct. 17, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 17, 2022 at 8:24 p.m.

Sky View Education Center, where environmental and health officials repeatedly found elevated levels of various toxins including PCBs.  (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
Sky View Education Center, where environmental and health officials repeatedly found elevated levels of various toxins including PCBs. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
By Taylor Blatchford Seattle Times

Ten students and parents who say they suffered serious neurological injuries from chemical exposure at a Monroe school have been awarded $275 million by a King County jury.

The lawsuit against Bayer Pharmaceuticals – which owns chemical giant Monsanto, the manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs – is the fourth to result in a multimillion-dollar verdict. The first three resulted in jury verdicts of $268 million distributed to 14 plaintiffs. One lawsuit is ongoing and 16 more lawsuits are awaiting trial.

In all, more than 200 students, parents and teachers from the Sky Valley Education Center, an alternative school in Snohomish County, have sued Monsanto over environmental contamination at the school.

They claim the Monroe School District knew as early as 2014 that PCBs were found on the campus, but, despite cleanup efforts, toxins were still being found into 2019.

A Seattle Times and ProPublica investigation this year found that the district was slow to respond to environmental hazards even while publicly reassuring staff, students and their parents that the school was safe.

Plaintiffs say exposure to PCBs on campus led to health effects including neurological problems, skin lesions, cancer, hormonal diseases and other illnesses. PCBs were banned by the EPA in 1979 but still remain in some structures built before then, including in lighting ballasts at Sky Valley before they were replaced.

In the recent verdict, delivered late last week, a jury awarded three parents $5 million each in damages and seven students between $20 million and $52.5 million each. The students’ ages while at Sky Valley ranged from teenagers to infants brought to the school by their mothers.

The $275 million total includes both 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 series of jury verdicts for Sky Valley plaintiffs have resulted in some of the largest awards nationwide for individual PCB exposures.

“PCBs are a systemic poison, which means they attack all the bodily systems,” said Rick Friedman, an attorney representing the Sky Valley plaintiffs.

“Everybody had different exposures, because it was a constantly changing environment. I think the different amounts reflects the various juries’ assessments of how badly hurt each person is.”

Bayer Pharmaceuticals said in a statement that it disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal, as it has with previous verdicts.

The company said the evidence in the case did not support the conclusions that plaintiffs were exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs. “The air and other tests in evidence reflected either no or extremely low levels of PCBs in this school, and there was no physical evidence introduced at trial showing exposure to PCBs, such as blood testing results,” the statement reads.

Bayer also pointed to failures on the part of the Monroe School District.

In early 2022, the school district agreed to a $34 million settlement with parents and students exposed to PCBs. The district did not accept responsibility for hazardous conditions on the campus and said it acted appropriately to remove toxicants and inform parents.

This spring, Washington lawmakers allocated $1.5 million to remove toxic fluorescent lights from schools following the Times and ProPublica investigation.

“For most of the plaintiffs, it’s about getting attention to this so others don’t have to go through what they went through,” Friedman said. “The hope is the big verdicts will get the attention of legislatures and school districts and people will start to get this stuff out of schools.”

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