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In re In re TMI

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 20014
Nos. No. 94-7600 et al., 67 F.3d 1119/(3d Cir., 10/17/1995)

The court holds that punitive damages are available under Pennsylvania law and the Price-Anderson Amendments Act of 1988 (PAA)) to plaintiffs in a suit against the operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor for personal injuries allegedly resulting from exposure to radiation released during a 1979 accident at the facility. The PAA retroactively created a federal cause of action known as the "public liability action," which includes suits asserting "any legal liability arising out of or resulting from a nuclear incident or precautionary evacuation." The court holds that punitive damages are available in these actions based on theplain meaning of the PAA's language. It is undisputed that these suits are public liability actions, and claims for punitive damages are not listed among the types of claims that the Act excludes. Also, punitive damages are a type of legal liability. The court rejects defendants' argument that because the inherently penal nature of punitive damages under Pennsylvania law is inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the public liability action, the PAA precludes plaintiffs from recovering punitive damages. Although the PAA specifically prohibits punitive damages, this prohibition is limited and applies only to nuclear incidents occurring on or after August 20, 1988. Because the Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979, well before the PAA's 1988 effective date, the prohibition does not apply here. Moreover, this court previously concluded in another stage of this litigation that imposition of state remedies in a public liability action would not frustrate the objectives of the PAA.

The court rejects defendants' claim that references in the Act's legislative history suggest that punitive damages would undermine the compensatory proposes of the Act and make it unworkable. The legislative history reveals that Congress declined to eliminate punitive damages. In the discussion that preceded the Act, the House committee eliminated a proposed amendment to preclude punitive damages entirely. Subsequent consideration of the Act in the Senate also indicates Congress' intent to allow punitive damages. The court next holds that the penal objectives of punitive damages under Pennsylvania law are not in conflict with the PAA. The court rejects defendants' argument that punitive damages cannot be imposed on any particular defendant or group of defendants without violating the Act's collective approach to compensation. The court emphasizes that the district court on remand has authority to prioritize the various claims if punitive damages are awarded. There is nothing in the Act that precludes a district court from using its discretion to limit or even preclude punitive damages in accordance with the financial constraints of the fund.

[A related decision is published at 26 ELR 20006.]

Counsel for Appellants
Alfred H. Wilcox
Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz
3000 Two Logan Sq.
18th & Arch Sts., Philadelphia PA 19103
(215) 981-4000

Counsel for Appellees
Laurence S. Berman
Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman
320 Walnut St., Ste. 600, Philadelphia PA 19106
(215) 592-1500

Before Scirica, McKee, and Sarokin, JJ.