The federal jury empaneled Monday in a retrial for Hanford downwinder Shannon Rhodes was told her aggressive thyroid cancer cannot be stopped and she is expected to die within two years.
Rhodes, 64, wrapped herself in a pink shawl in the cool courtroom and watched intently as prospective jurors were questioned.
The Chicago lawyers for General Electric and DuPont, the corporations that ran Hanford for the government during World War II and the early years of the Cold War, asked prospective jurors whether they could set aside their sympathy for her as they look at scientific evidence over the next two weeks about whether the radiation exposure she got as a farm child in Dusty, Wash., was sufficient to cause her fatal cancer.
From the mid-1940s through the 1950s, Hanford’s plutonium factories ejected large clouds of invisible radiation that drifted downwind, settling on grass. Children were exposed when they drank contaminated milk from cows that ate the tainted grass.
“The toughest issue is the fact that Ms. Rhodes is terminal,” said Kevin Van Wart, lead attorney for the defense. “But is there anyone who feels they can’t put those sympathies aside and fairly decide on causation?”
According to legal orders issued by U.S. District Judge William F. Nielsen, the plaintiffs don’t have to prove that GE and DuPont were negligent in releasing radioactive iodine 131 from the Hanford plants in the rush to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. They must show that Hanford radiation is the probable cause of Rhodes’ illness.
“This is a causation case: Whether the iodine 131 released from Hanford caused the condition that Ms. Shannon Rhodes suffers from – thyroid cancer,” Nielsen said.
Richard Eymann of Spokane, the lead plaintiff’s lawyer for Rhodes’ trial, closely questioned the jury panel about their attitudes toward lawyers and lawsuits – and their thoughts on whether suffering people should get large jury awards.
“How do you equate dying with money?” Eymann asked.
“She (Rhodes) is going to die within the next year or two. … The only thing we can do is to make her death easier. …Would any of you say the money won’t change anything?” he asked.
Nielsen dismissed several people from the panel of 50 prospective jurors, including a man whose brother-in-law was recently crushed to death by a logging truck and who complained about lawyers’ contingency fees for the ensuing wrongful death case.
Lawyers for both sides used their peremptory challenges to dismiss others, including an elderly pastor from Colbert and a Ritzville day-care operator skeptical of lawsuits and large jury verdicts.
By midday, a jury of 12 was chosen. Jurors are from several towns in the federal court’s sprawling Eastern District of Washington, including two radiation technicians from Wenatchee, a sous-chef from the Red Lion Hotel in Wenatchee, a retired telephone operator from Clarkston and a state highway maintenance worker from Omak.
In opening arguments for the plaintiffs, Eymann described Rhodes’ childhood in Dusty, where her parents owned a farm. She was born in Colfax on Aug. 5, 1941.
The day after Christmas in 1944, Hanford’s first plutonium plants started up and began ejecting clouds of radioactive iodine 131 that reached the farm where Rhodes lived. “She gave up something very precious. It was her health, and now it’s her life,” Eymann said.
Rhodes has struggled with thyroid disease for 27 years. Her left thyroid lobe was removed in January 1978 and she was told it was a benign tumor. But the thyroid cancer metastasized, and she has had three more operations.
Rhodes was one of six “bellwether” plaintiffs whose cases were thought to be representative of more than 2,000 other claims in the big Hanford lawsuit filed in 1990.
The bellwethers’ cases were tried in April. On May 19, a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of the defendants in her case, and Nielsen declared a mistrial.
Rhodes’ cancer, which had been in remission, returned with growths around her trachea and in her brain during the spring trial. But the jury wasn’t told after objections from defense attorneys.
There is no explanation other than Hanford radiation for Rhodes’ cancer, Eymann said. Plaintiff’s lawyers intend to call a variety of experts to discuss the association between radioactive iodine and thyroid cancer.
The disease has shortened Rhodes’ life by 19 and a half years, Eymann said. The short time she has left to live is worth between $218,000 and $280,000 in economic damages, according to one plaintiff’s expert.
The defense will argue that because Rhodes’ estimated radiation dose was low – an estimated 6.9 rads – her risk from Hanford emissions was also low.
“You haven’t heard a word about the relationship between dose and risk,” Van Wart said in the first few minutes of his presentation late Monday afternoon. Van Wart will continue today with his opening statement to the jury.