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Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Envtl. Study Group

Citation: 8 ELR 20545
No. Nos. 77-262, -375, 438 U.S. 59/11 ERC 1753/(U.S., 06/26/1978) Rev'd

The United States Supreme Court determines that the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of federally licensed nuclear power plants for damages resulting from nuclear accidents to $560 million, does not violate either the Due Process Clause or the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. At the outset, appellees and the lower court mistakenly rely on 28 U.S.C. §1337 for jurisdiction. The issues in the case turn directly on constitutional questions and are therefore properly brought under the federal question jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. §1331(a). Appellants raised the additional threshold question of standing, asserting the lack of a demonstrable connection between the existence of the challenged statute and appellees alleged injuries. The Court finds it clear from the legislative history of the Act, however, that were it not for Price-Anderson's limitation on liability the nuclear industry in general and the nearby plant in particular would not be sufficiently developed to have caused appellees' alleged injuries. The principle that the injuries complained of, in this case environmental degradation and increased health risks, must bear a substantial relation to the constitutional rights asserted is derived solely from cases involving the standing of taxpayers and is inapposite to this case. Similarly, the appellants' ripeness claim is brushed aside by the Court because the relief requested by the plaintiffs below would clearly remedy the asserted injury. Proceeding to the due process analysis, the Court notes that the statute must be presumed and held constitutional unless demonstrated to be arbitrary or irrational, and then finds it to be a rational means of furthering Congress' legitimate interest in promoting the development of nuclear energy. The Act's limitation of $560 million, while admittedly not even a close estimate of the damages which might result from a nuclear accident, was chosen after much deliberation and cannot be ruled arbitrary. Regardless of whether the Due Process Clause requires a quid pro quo for such a limitation on liability, the congressional commitment within the Act to compensate accident victims for damages in excess of the statutory limit constitutes sufficient protection of rights guaranteed under the clause. Moreover, the Act sets up a distribution scheme which, in the event of such accident, would compensate victims more quickly, efficiently, and equitably than would state courts applying tort law. Finally, appellees' equal protection arguments, though not pursued on appeal, are found by the Court to be unmeritorious for essentially the same reasons as outlined above.

In three concurrences, four members of the Court express the view that they would remand with instructions to dismiss, because the theoretical chain on which the original claim was grounded is too tenuous to support findings of jurisdiction or, alternatively, standing.

Counsel for Appellants
Joseph B. Knotts, Jr.
Debevoise & Liberman
806 15th St. NW, Washington DC 20005
(202) 393-2080

Wade H. McCree, Jr., Solicitor General; Barbara Allen Babcock, Assistant Attorney General; Harriet S. Shapiro, Robert E. Kopp, Thomas G. Wilson
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 739-2201

Counsel for Appellees
William B. Schultz, Alan B. Morrison
2000 P St. NW, Washington DC 20036
(202) 785-3704