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Hanford downwinder case goes to jury

After nearly two days of arguments by attorneys on whether doctors or scientists are more believable, the case of six Washington residents who say they were injured by radiation from a nuclear weapons plant went to a federal jury Friday afternoon.

At the suggestion of U.S. District Judge William Fremming Nielsen, the jury went home for the weekend and will begin deliberating Monday the case involving six people who grew up downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

In closing arguments, an attorney for defense contractors DuPont and General Electric contended there was no way for doctors to tell if any of the medical conditions suffered by the six downwinders came from Hanford radiation. Three have thyroid cancer, and the other three have autoimmune diseases connected to the thyroid.

Although doctors for the downwinders said those problems were probably caused by radioactive iodine, Kevin Van Wart said the diseases could be caused by stress, genetics or the factors that affect people who don’t live near Hanford.

“They want you to conclude that every time a thyroid condition occurs in the Pacific Northwest, it was due to Hanford,” Van Wart said. “They want to appeal to your biases, your prejudices and your passions.”

But attorneys for the downwinders said they produced doctors who examined each of the downwinders and came to the conclusion that radiation was a cause of the medical problems they developed. The defense contractors produced no doctors to rebut those conclusions.

The risks of radioactive iodine are better understood today than in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Hanford releases occurred, said Dick Eymann, an attorney for the downwinders.

“If that had happened today, they’d evacuate a three-state area,” he said.

The six central Washington residents involved in the trial are “bellwether” cases for more than 2,000 downwinders who have legal claims connected to Cold War releases from Hanford.

The claims involve so many different types of medical conditions, from different types of radiation exposure in different areas, that they can’t be wrapped into a single class-action suit, Eymann said. “There aren’t enough courtrooms around to try all the cases,” he added.

The jury’s decision on these bellwether cases isn’t binding on any of the other claims, Eymann said, but attorneys from both sides could use it as a guide for future settlements.

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