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Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.

ELR Citation: 14 ELR 20077
Nos. No. 81-2159, 464 U.S. 238/20 ERC 1229/(U.S., 01/11/1984) Rev'd

The Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, reverses the Tenth Circuit's ruling, 12 ELR 20367, that punitive damages otherwise available to a plaintiff under state tort law may not be obtained against the operator of a federally licensed plutonium-processing facility by virtue of the preemption doctrine. The Court, after noting that the case is properly before it by writ of certiorari rather than direct appeal, rules that the legislative history of the Atomic Energy Act demonstrates Congress' intent to preserve state common-law tort remedies. Although the legislative history does make it clear that states were rendered powerless to regulate the nuclear industry, there is no evidence that Congress also intended to bar causes of action under state common law. Indeed, if this had been its intent, the effect would have been to leave injured individuals without recourse to judicial remedies, since there exists no such remedy under federal law. More importantly, the enactment of the Price-Anderson Act, which selectively modified the applicability of state law to claims involving certain types of nuclear-related injuries, suggests strongly that Congress assumed state common law to remain in effect in other respects. This is the case for both compensatory and punitive damages.

In discerning the proper role of the states in this federally dominated field, the court notes that the test is whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between federal and state standards or whether the application of state standards would frustrate the implementation of the federal scheme. Applying this test, the Court rejects the argument of the United States that its authority under the Atomic Energy Act to obtain civil penalties precludes the availability of punitive damages. The Court also rejects the argument that the availability of punitive damages would frustrate Congress' goal of promoting the development of nuclear power, noting that Congress did not intend to promote nuclear power at the cost of leaving injured individuals without adequate legal remedies.

Justice Blackmun, joined by Justice Marshall, dissents on the ground that the majority opinion conflicts with precedent and wreaks havoc with the regulatory structure that Congress carefully crafted. In his view, when it comes to nuclear power, federal preemption of state law is complete in matters concerning safety. Since the punitive damages award at issue was clearly based upon a finding of unsafe practices, it is invalid. Justice Blackmun distinguishes the trial court's award of compensatory damages, which, since its purpose was less to penalize the plant operator than to compensate the victim, was consistent with federal law.

Justice Powell, joined by Justice Blackmun and Chief Justice Burger, dissents on similar grounds, noting further the incongruity of permitting lay juries to award punitive damages, which are permitted only in a case of malicious or gross negligence, even where a defendant has complied with the regulations of the expert federal agency charged by Congress with the enormously difficult job of regulating the nuclear industry. The effect of the majority's opinion will be to discourage commercial investment in nuclear power and leave this area of the law in disarray.

Counsel for Appellant
Michael H. Gottesman, Robert M. Weinberg, Jeremiah A. Collins
Bredhoff & Kaiser
1000 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036
(202) 833-9340

Jim Ikard
Derryberry, Duncan & Gray
4420 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City OK 73105
(405) 424-5535

Arthur R. Angel
Fredrickson, Merrick & Patton
2700 First City Place, Oklahoma City OK 73102
(405) 235-4127

Daniel R. Sheehan
Durrall, Meadows, Sheehan & Walters
United Founders Life Twr., Oklahoma City OK 73112
(405) 843-9605

Counsel for Appellees
Richard R. Wilfong, Litigation Division Counsel
Kerr-McGee Corp., Kerr-McGee Center, P.O. Box 25861, Oklahoma City OK 73125
(405) 270-2313

C. Lee Cook Jr., William Van Hagey, William T. McGrath, Pamela J. Kempin
Chadwell & Kayser, Ltd.
8500 Sears Twr., 233 S. Wacker Dr., Chicago IL 60606-6592
(312) 876-2100

William G. Paul, L.E. Stringer, John J. Griffin Jr., Harvey D. Ellis Jr.
Crowe & Dunlevy
1800 Mid-America Twr., 20 Broadway, Oklahoma City OK 73102
(405) 235-7700

Elliott C. Fenton, Larry D. Ottoway
Fenton, Fenton, Smith, Reneau & Moon
200 Ct. Plaza Bldg., 228 Robert Kerr Ave., Oklahoma City OK 73102
(405) 235-4671

Counsel for Amicus Curiae
John H. Garvey; Rex E. Lee, Solicitor General; Paul M. Bator
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2687