Families Against Cancer & Toxics
Stop cancer before it starts
May 21, 2005
Cancer Claims Upheld for 2, but Denied for 3
In landmark Hanford case, lawyers for two victims establish a link between the disease and the plant that produced fuel for nuclear bombs.
By Sam Howe Verhovek, Times Staff Writer
SEATTLE — A federal jury, acting in a bellwether case that took nearly 15 years to come to trial, awarded more than $500,000 Thursday to two thyroid-cancer victims who contended that their illness was caused by the government plant in central Washington state that produced nuclear-bomb fuel for 30 years.
But the jury, in Spokane, ruled against awarding any damages for three other plaintiffs with thyroid problems, and deadlocked on the sixth plaintiff's case.
The overall verdict left both sides claiming victory, and also left unclear the fate of claims by hundreds of other people, who lived downwind of the plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation, that they should be compensated for their illnesses.
"This is a historic day," said Richard Eymann, the lead trial counsel for the plaintiffs. "The real lesson to take from today's verdict is that the time is now for our government to do the right thing by all of these victims and offer fair and reasonable settlements."
Lawyers for the corporate defendants in the trial, including contractors General Electric Co. and DuPont Co., said that the verdict largely vindicated their clients and that the relatively small damage award, in two of the six cases, made it unlikely that any other plaintiffs would press their cases to trial.
The government, which had indemnified the private contractors at the plant, picked up the legal bill for the trial, which some experts said could approach $100 million.
The jury awarded $227,508 for Steve Stanton and $317,251 for Gloria Wise.
The plaintiffs said their illnesses were caused by the release of radioactive plumes from smokestacks at Hanford that blew eastward and exposed people living in a large swaths of territory in eastern Washington and Oregon, as well as Idaho.
But Kevin Van Wart, a lawyer for the companies, said such claims were unfounded. "There is no epidemic of thyroid disease around Hanford," he told the jury during the three-week trial in U.S. District Court. "It is just not there."
The six-woman, six-man jury was essentially asked to determine whether the Hanford complex was "more likely than not" the cause of thyroid disease and other health problems suffered by the plaintiffs. Radioactive iodine-131, which was released as a byproduct of nuclear-fuel production, can concentrate in the thyroid and cause cells to malfunction or grow abnormally.
The six plaintiffs were born in the 1940s, when the government began operations at the plant, which manufactured the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
Shirley Carlisle, a plaintiff who was born in 1947 and has lived all her life on the same block in Richland, Wash., near the plant, said she was "very disappointed" by the verdict, because she believed Hanford radiation was the likely cause of hyperthyroid, autoimmune and goiter problems that have plagued her for years. She did not receive any compensation.
"Twelve good people looked at it and couldn't find causation," she said in a telephone interview from her home. "I have to accept it. It's a sad situation, but life moves on."
The Hanford complex was deeply intertwined with the local economy in the Tri-Cities area of Washington, and it will remain so, as work continues on a cleanup operation that will cost tens of billions of dollars and won't be finished until 2035 or later.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit reflects the bitter feelings of many people in the area who say government-commissioned reports demonstrate they had substantial exposure to poisonous radiation.
Wise, 60, said the verdict was an important first step in holding the government accountable.
"It's not a situation you can feel any joy about," said Wise, who grew up in Pasco, Wash., and now lives in Kennewick, the cities that together with Richland make up the Tri-Cities region. "You'd rather not have the disease in the first place."