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Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.

Citation: 10 ELR 20708
No. No. 76-0888, 485 F. Supp. 566/(W.D. Okla., 08/18/1979)

In an action for damages for radiation exposure suffered by plaintiff's decedent, the court issues an opinion supporting the judgment and denying defendants' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. Decedent, an employee at defendants' nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, became contaminated by plutonium in her apartment, which was located some 20 miles from the plant. Although she died shortly thereafter from other causes, a jury awarded plaintiff actual damages of $505,000 and punitive damages of $10 million in connection with the radiation-related injuries.

The court first finds that defendants' principal defense, that congressional enactment of the Atomic Energy Act and the Price-Anderson Act preempted application of state law to the nuclear industry is devoid of merit. On the contrary, the legislative history of the latter statute makes it clear that Congress specifically intended that all claims for nuclear-related injuries be decided according to state common law. Moreover, congressional intent reinforces the unanimous view of the commentators that operators of facilities such as defendants' should be held strictly liable for injuries resulting from such ultrahazardous activities. The court rejects defendants' claim that decedent assumed the risk of this type of injury, ruling that the assumption of risk doctrine is inapplicable where the injury occurs outside the workplace. Nor may defendants escape liability on the grounds that the facility was operated in compliance with federal regulations. While compliance with federal operational standards is evidence of the exercise of reasonable care, such evidence would neither bar an award of damages based on strict liability, nor prevent a jury from concluding that a defendant acted unreasonably, nor operate to rule out an award of punitive damages. Similarly, the fact that the exposure suffered by decedent was within federal standards for industry workers has some bearing on the gravity of the injury but in no way means that injury cannot be sustained at such an exposure level. The court also rejects the argument that the Oklahoma workmen's compensation law bars the bringing of a private tort action. The statute is inapplicable here because defendants have not shown a sufficient causal connection between decedent's injury, which occurred in her residence, and her employment. Finally, the court dismisses a series of additional arguments raised by defendants, including (1) that the amount of the damages award was excessive, (2) that the jury was unduly influenced by publicity surrounding the trial, (3) that the court improperly excluded certain evidence, and (4) that plaintiff's counsel was guilty of misbehavior at trial. An appendix to the opinion sets out the instructions given the jury.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (44 pp. $6.00, ELR Order No. C-1223).

Counsel for Plaintiff
Daniel R. Sheehan
Durall, Meadows, Sheehan & Walters
United Founders Life Tower, Oklahoma City OK 73125
(405) 943-9605

J. Ikard
Courbois, Chew & Ikard
1215 Classen Blvd., Oklahoma City OK 73106
(405) 239-2379

G. L. Spence
Spence, Moriarty & Schuster
275 Pearl St., P.O. Box 554, Jackson WY
(307) 733-7290

Counsel for Defendants
William G. Paul, L. E. Stringer, John J. Griffin Jr.
Crowe, Dunlevy, Thweatt, Swinford, Johnson & Burdick
17th Fl. Liberty Tower, 100 Broadway, Oklahoma City OK 73102
(405) 236-4671

Elliott C. Fenton, Larry D. Ottaway
Fenton, Fenton, Smith, Reneau & Moon
405 Midland Center, Oklahoma City OK 73102
(405) 236-4671

Glenn W. McGee, C. Lee Cook Jr.
Chadwell, Kayser, Ruggles, McGee & Hastings
8500 Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker Dr., Chicago IL 60606
(312) 876-2100

Theis, J.

[OPINION OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]