Six Inland Northwest residents received a split decision Thursday in the long-running legal battle over the health effects of the federal government’s nuclear weapons program.
But it’s uncertain how that decision will shape the battles of more than 2,000 other people who lived downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and have claims against the private contractors who operated Hanford through World War II and into the Cold War.
Two people who grew up near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have thyroid cancer, which was likely caused at least partly by radioactive iodine 131 released from the weapons plants, a federal jury ruled after three weeks of trial and more than three days of deliberations.
Steve Stanton of Walla Walla should receive $227,508, the jury said; Gloria Wise of Kennewick should receive $317,251.
Three downwinders who have autoimmune thyroid diseases, but not cancer, did not convince the jury that Hanford’s iodine 131 emissions were “more likely than not” the cause of their medical conditions. Because of that, Wanda Buckner, Shirley Carlisle and Katherine Goldbloom are not entitled to compensation.
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on the sixth downwinder, Shannon Rhodes of Coeur d’Alene, who also has thyroid cancer. The jurors had agreed not to talk to the news media after the trial and declined to discuss the differences in the verdicts. The jury was not told that Rhodes’ thyroid cancer, thought to be in remission when the trial started, has returned.
Attorneys for the downwinders and the defense contractors who ran the nuclear weapons operations at Hanford both said they viewed the verdict as a victory.
The federal government has spent $100 million on legal costs and $40 million on a pair of studies since the first Hanford cases were filed in 1990, said downwinders’ attorney Richard Eymann. But the jury verdicts would be the first dime paid to victims of the Hanford releases, he said.
“It’s a mixed result, but we still feel very good about taking the first case to trial and winning a portion of it. The U.S. Department of Energy should take a hard look at this verdict,” Eymann said. If a majority of the remaining 2,300 other cases are decided in favor of the plaintiffs, the government’s liability could reach $2 billion, Eymann said.
Kevin Van Wart, an attorney for DuPont and General Electric, which ran the weapons plants under contract to the government in the 1940s and 1950s, called the verdicts a clear victory for the government because the jury was able to sort through complicated testimony and decide which cases have merit.
“I don’t see how they can continue to try these cases,” Van Wart said. “These are very expensive cases to put on.”
When it set up the weapons plants in the 1940s as part of the wartime Manhattan Project, the government agreed to indemnify any nuclear contractors for accidents and routine operations. That means U.S. taxpayers are paying the tab for the contractors’ legal fees, Hanford radiation studies and any jury verdicts or settlements arising from the litigation.
The six plaintiffs are “bellwethers” for approximately 2,300 legal claims that stem from the Hanford radiation releases. Although Thursday’s verdicts aren’t binding on those other claims, they could point a way toward settlements or the handling of future trials, because both sides now know what evidence can be presented and what cannot.
U.S. District Judge William Fremming Nielsen, who has handled the 15-year-old case for the last two years as it inched toward this first trial, pushed the attorneys in that direction after the verdicts were read.
“I certainly hope from this stage forward, the participants will give some good-faith efforts to the mediation process,” Nielsen said. “A lot of uncertainties have now become more certain.”
The 12-person jury, which was told to consider each of the six downwinders separately, awarded separate verdicts to Stanton and Wise after determining each had cancer that was probably caused by radioactive iodine released from Hanford.
Stanton, a civil engineer who works for a consulting firm in Walla Walla, said he was relieved the trial was over and surprised the jury ruled in favor of some plaintiffs and not others. But he praised the jurors for spending nearly four days on an extremely complicated and technical trial. He also praised Nielsen’s handling of the trial and lawyers on both sides.
Stanton was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1996 and joined the case shortly afterward. At times, he said he wondered if the case would ever come to trial. When he was picked as one of the bellwether plaintiffs, he was sometimes uncomfortable with the attention from the news media.
“I’m a private person,” he said. “At least I know my case is over with.”
The verdict will cover his medical bills, Stanton said, and he has no anger or bitterness toward the federal government or the contractors for what happened.
Wise declined to comment on the verdict Thursday. Her husband, Larry Wise, said she would need a day or two to think things through but had commented that “she felt real bad for the other plaintiffs.”
Although Rhodes also suffers from thyroid cancer, the jury could not come to a verdict on her case, and Nielsen declared a mistrial.
Rhodes said she was the sickest of the thyroid cancer bellwethers, and she now faces an aggressive recurrence of her cancer.
“I have three or four more doctors’ appointments lined up now. … I don’t feel justice has been done with this verdict,” she said.
The jury apparently agreed with defense attorneys who had argued there was no proven link between iodine 131 and the types of autoimmune thyroid diseases suffered by Buckner, Goldbloom and Carlisle.
Buckner, who lives in Spokane and in Yuma, Ariz., said she was disappointed by the verdict in her case but doesn’t blame the jury. “I believe the jury did the best they could with the information they had,” she said
But defense efforts to portray her thyroid disease as caused by stress was “baloney,” Buckner said. The jury wasn’t allowed to hear enough information on iodine 131’s role as an environmental contaminant, she said.
Van Wart said claims by Stanton and Wise could have been settled without a trial, and the jury’s rejection of the claims for autoimmune thyroid disease undercuts many of the outstanding claims.
“These were their very strongest claims, their hand-picked cases,” Van Wart said.
But Eymann said the cases were “a representative sample” of the many cases still to be tried. Some received high doses of radiation and others had relatively low doses.
“We have hundreds of really good cases remaining,” Eymann said.