WILLOWBROOK, Ill. (AP) — The former operator of a suburban Chicago medical equipment cleaning plant has agreed to pay $408 million to settle hundreds of lawsuits alleging that the now-shuttered facility exposed residents to a toxic industrial gas and caused illnesses.
Sterigenics announced Monday that a claims administrator will be appointed to distribute the money to as many as 870 people who had sued the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company. The completion of the settlement agreements is expected to take 90 to 120 days, it said.
Sterigenics used toxic ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceutical drugs and spices at a facility in Willowbrook, a DuPage County village southwest of Chicago.
State authorities ordered the plant temporarily shut down in 2019 after air quality monitoring recorded spikes of ethylene oxide in surrounding neighborhoods. Sterigenics later permanently closed the facility.
The first lawsuits against Sterigenics and other companies tied to the Willowbrook plant were filed in 2018 after published research showed people living near the plant faced some of the nation's highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.
Under the agreement, Sterigenics will pay to settle the claims "subject to substantially all of the plaintiffs providing opt-in consents to their individual settlement allocations and dismissing their claims with prejudice," Sotera Health, Sterigenics' parent company, said in a statement.
In September, a Cook County jury awarded $363 million to one plaintiff, a 70-year-old woman who alleged Sterigenics exposed her to ethylene oxide gas for 20 years and led to her cancer diagnosis.
Sterigenics was ordered to pay $220 million in punitive damages to the woman, whose lawsuit was the first to go to trial. Sotera Health was directed to pay her $100 million and Griffith Foods, the current name of the plant's original owner, $5 million. Jurors also awarded the woman $38 million in compensatory damages.
Sotera Health said in its statement that the planned settlements are "not to be construed as an admission of any liability or that emissions from the Willowbrook facilities ever posed any safety hazard to the surrounding communities."
The statement adds that while "Sterigenics maintains that its Willowbrook operations did not pose a safety risk to the community in which it operated," it was in its best interest to settle the lawsuits because significant time and cost would have been required to contest all of the cases.