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O'Conner v. Commonwealth Edison Co.

Citation: 24 ELR 20689
No. No. 92-2989, 13 F.3d 1090/(7th Cir., 01/07/1994)

The court holds that a nuclear facility employee's state suit for damages based on personal injury allegedly caused by exposure to unsafe dosages of radiation was constitutionally removed to federal court under the Price-Anderson Amendments Act (PAAA), and that retroactive application of the PAAA did not deprive the employee of due process. The employee originally brought suit in state court alleging that he was exposed to an excessive dose of radiation at the facility that caused him to develop cataracts. The dose he allegedly received did not exceed the federal safety standards.

The court first holds that the PAAA constitutionally confers jurisdiction over public liability actions on the federal courts. Although the public liability cause of action is built around preexisting state law, it contains distinctively federal elements that form the state-based cause of action into the federal mold. The court holds that a mere jurisdictional grant is not sufficient for a matter to "arise under" the U.S. Constitution or laws of the United States, but when Congress has the authority to legislate in a given area and substantively does so, a grant of federal subject matter jurisdiction is constitutional. The PAAA embodies substantive federal policies and does not merely create federal jurisdiction for a state claim. Although the basis for a public liability action is state law, the applicable law is only "derived" from state law. The PAAA alters state tort law to protect the public and encourage the development of the atomic energy industry, and Congress intended to supplant all possible state causes of action when the factual prerequisites of the PAAA are met.

The court next holds that retroactive application of the PAAA to the employee's previously accrued cause of action is constitutional. Congress had a legitimate legislative purpose of guaranteeing that all cases arising out of the same nuclear accident be consolidated in one forum, and retroactive application of the Act is a rational means of accomplishing that purpose. The court next holds that the federal safety standards provide the standard of care owed the employee by the nuclear facility. The safety regulations should not be accorded the status of mere custom because the regulations for nuclear power plants are not flexible guides and there is no margin for error in nuclear safety. Additionally, the federal nuclear safety regulations preempt all state safety regulations. The court holds that any standard of care other than the federal regulations would be inconsistent with the PAAA and thus cannot be applied in a public liability action. Finally, the court holds that the testimony of an expert witness that the employee's cataracts were caused by radiation has no scientific basis and is thus inadmissible to establish causation, and consequently, the court upholds the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Donald E. Jose
Jose & Wiedeis
Goshen Executive Ctr., 1450 E. Boot Rd., Ste. 300-B, Westchester PA 19380
(215) 436-1888

Counsel for Defendants
Patricia A. Millett
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before RIPPLE and MANION, Circuit Judges, and SHADUR, District Judge.*