Sparks flew in U.S. District Court in Spokane Wednesday over settlement offers to 234 people with thyroid cancer who were exposed to radiation from Hanford in the early rush to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The latest offers, made Monday, went to people with estimated doses of under 10 rads of radiation. The defense team also recently made 26 offers of up to $150,000 for people with dose estimates over 10 rads, which have been accepted by 18.
About 1,500 people known as Hanford downwinders remain in the case, filed in 1990 against the contractors who released clouds of dangerous iodine-131 as they operated Hanford’s plutonium factories during World War II and the Cold War.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers told U.S. District Court Judge William F. Nielsen that lawyers for the defendants violated court rules by addressing settlement offers directly to their clients, “corrupting” mediation efforts led by a Portland judge.
They also said the low offers were derived solely from a dose estimate in a controversial government study and did not take into account the downwinders’ medical bills or their pain and suffering.
Plaintiff lawyer Richard Eymann, of Spokane, accused the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency indemnifying the contractors, of deliberate delays that have caused sick people to give up on the case and accept small settlements.
Kevin Van Wart, lead defense attorney from the Kirkland & Ellis law firm in Chicago, said the settlement offers to move the case forward and the letters don’t violate court rules because they were sent to plaintiffs’ lawyers and not directly to the downwinders.
One of the offers went to Deborah Clark, 61, a former medical records administrator in a coma in a Longview, Wash., hospice. After multiple surgeries since 1997, her thyroid cancer has spread to her bones. She was offered $10,000 to settle her lawsuit based on a low dose estimate of less than 1 rad.
Clark has racked up $600,000 in medical bills, Eymann told Nielsen. He has asked the government for $2 million to settle her case, saying her estimated dose is far higher – 35 rads.
Nielsen conceded that the downwinders’ case has become “embarrassingly long.” He inherited the case in 2003 when another federal judge was forced to recuse himself for a conflict of interest.
Since then, Nielsen has shaped the case, making key legal rulings, presiding over several “bellwether” trials and awaiting rulings from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Another key trial, for up to 23 hypothyroid victims, will be held early next year.