Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee: 1979

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Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee: 1979

Plaintiff: Estate of Karen Silkwood
Defendant: Kerr-McGee Nuclear Company
Plaintiff Claim: Damages for negligence leading to the plutonium contamination of Karen Silkwood
Chief Defense Lawyers: Elliott Fenton, John Griffin, Jr., Larry D. Ottoway, William Paul, L.E. Stringer, and Bill J. Zimmerman
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Gerald Spence, Arthur Angel, and James Ikard
Judge: Frank G. Theis
Place: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Dates of Trial: March 6-May 18, 1979
Verdict: Defendant was found negligent and was ordered to pay $505,000 actual damages, $10 million punitive damages

SIGNIFICANCE: This precedent-setting action between the estate of a dead woman and a giant industrial conglomerate sparked a public uproar about the issue of safety at nuclear facilities and held a company liable for negligence.

Karen Silkwood, a young lab technician and union activist at an Oklahoma plutonium plant operated by the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Company, uncovered evidence in 1974 of managerial wrongdoing and negligence. On November 13, three months after providing the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) with a detailed list of violations, she was en route to deliver documents to a New York Times reporter when her car crashed under mysterious circumstances and she died. An autopsy revealed plutonium contamination, confirming the results of tests taken when she was alive. Speculation among her opponents at that time, was that she had deliberately contaminated herself to embarrass Kerr-McGee, an assertion that Silkwood bitterly denied. When the Silkwood estate announced its intention to sue, Kerr-McGee insisted that its Cimarron plant met federal guidelines and that any contamination Silkwood sustained must have come from elsewhere.

After more than four years of delay, on March 6, 1979, Karen Silkwood's family finally had their day in court against Kerr-McGee. Actually they had three months, the longest civil trial in Oklahoma history. Leading off for the Silkwood estate, attorney Gerry Spence put Dr. John Gofman, a physician and an outspoken critic of lax nuclear regulation, on the stand. In answer to a Spence question about the dangers of plutonium, Gofman replied, "The license to give out doses of plutonium is a legalized permit to murder."

"Was Karen in danger of dying from the plutonium inside her?" asked Spence.

"Yes, she was."

Pressed on Kerr-McGee's skimpy employee training program, Gofman responded: "My opinion is that it is clearly and unequivocally negligence."

The only member of the Kerr-McGee management team to testify against his former employers was ex-supervisor James Smith. While conceding little affection for Silkwood as a personas a union organizer she had been prickly and combativeSmith corroborated her findings about safety violations at Kerr-McGee. Most alarming was his assertion that there were 40 pounds of Material Unaccounted For (MUF), meaning deadly plutonium that was missing. He dismissed company claims that the MUF was still at the plant. "Let me put it this way," said Smith, who had been in charge of flushing out the system pipes, "if there's 40 pounds still at Cimarron, I don't know where it is."

Another ex-Cimarron employee, now a highway patrol officer, Ron Hammock, told of defective fuel rods, packed full of plutonium pellets, knowingly being shipped to other facilities. "Who told you to ship them?" Spence asked. "My supervisor," the officer calmly replied.

Near Disaster

Three weeks into the trial something happened that raised the question of nuclear safety throughout the United States. A nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania had a near meltdown. For most Americans, the disaster at Three Mile Island was their first experience of the potential for nuclear calamity. The incident cast an inevitable pall over the Silkwood suit, enough for Kerr-McGee chief attorney Bill Paul to move for a mistrial. After careful consideration, Judge Frank Theis denied the request. On hearing this decision, the Silkwood team heaved a vast sigh of relief. Lacking the limitless financial resources of Kerr-McGee, they were fighting this action on a shoestring; any delay would only play into the hands of the $2-billion giant.

Disgruntled, Bill Paul called Kerr-McGee's star witness, Dr. George Voelz, health director at the prestigious Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Voelz testified that, in his opinion, the level of contamination displayed by Karen Silkwood fell within AEC standards. Spence thought otherwise. In a cross-examination lasting two days, he drew one embarrassing retraction after another from the frazzled scientist. Central to Voelz's theme was a model used to arrive at the standards. Spence showed how Karen Silkwood in no way conformed to the average person used in the model, she had been less than 100 pounds and a heavy smoker, both factors that influence the chances of contamination. Also, Spence extracted from Voelz the grudging admission that he really didn't know the level of plutonium exposure necessary to cause cancer.

In his final instructions to the jury, Judge Theis spelled out the law: "If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, Kerr-McGee is liable."

On May 18, 1979, after four days of deliberation, the jury decided that Kerr-McGee had indeed been negligent and awarded $505,000 in damages. A gasp swept the courtroom when the jury added on their assessment for punitive damages: $10 million.

It was a huge settlement, one obviously destined for the appeal courts. The litigation dragged on until August 1986, when, in an out-of-court settlement, Kerr-McGee agreed to pay the Silkwood estate $1.38 million, which amounted to less than one year's interest on the sum originally awarded.

Many regarded Karen Silkwood as a nuclear martyr. To this day, the circumstances surrounding her death remain shrouded in mystery. Was she killed to be silenced? That may never be known. What is known is that the Silkwood estate's victory, modest though it may have ultimately been, sent the nuclear industry a clear message: Dangerous sources of energy demand unusually vigilant regulation.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Kohn, Howard. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? New York: Summit, 1981.

Rashke, Richard. The Killing Of Karen Silkwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

"Silkwood Settlement." Science News (August 8, 1986): 134.

Spence, Gerry. With Justice For None. New York: Times Books, 1989.

Stein, J. "The Deepening Mystery." Progressive (January 1981): 14-19.