The U.S. Department of Energy has agreed to settle the claims of 139 people with thyroid disease — the largest settlement so far in a massive civil suit brought by people exposed as children to clouds of radioactive iodine from Hanford during World War II and the early years of the Cold War.
Details of the proposed settlement, which must be accepted by the individual plaintiffs, were filed this week in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
Each plaintiff with hypothyroid disease would receive $5,683 for a total amount just under $800,000, according to Kevin Van Wart, lead defense counsel with Kirkland & Ellis of Chicago.
“This is one of the largest groups of hypothyroid plaintiffs. It’s progress,” but doesn’t represent a government admission of wrongdoing, Van Wart said.
Just under 1,400 plaintiffs remain in the case, which originally had over 2,000 litigants.
The hypothyroidism plaintiffs are all represented by Roy P. Haber, a solo practitioner in Eugene, Oregon. Haber did not return calls seeking comment.
Haber is not allowing plaintiffs to discuss the settlement, according to one woman who agreed to settle her case after rejecting previous offers.
The Hanford downwinders’ case was filed in 1990, five years after The Spokesman-Review and two activist groups obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act that showed Hanford had released dangerous clouds of radioactive iodine 131 and other elements during its push to develop the nation’s first nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. There was no public warning at the time.
The riskiest radiation releases occurred between 1944 and 1950. A $27 million government study concluded in 1990 that the releases had put people at risk for developing thyroid disease — triggering a flood of litigation.
The government indemnified the private contractors who ran Hanford, including E.I. du Pont de Nemours and General Electric Co., and has paid over $60 million for their defense in the Hanford case. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have spent nearly $10 million from their own funds to pursue the personal injury claims.
In 2005, a Spokane federal jury heard the cases of six “bellwether” plaintiffs in the huge case, awarding $610,000 to two plaintiffs with thyroid cancer who received large Hanford doses.
But the jury also rejected the claims of four plaintiffs with hypothyroid disease, saying they didn’t prove their illness was “more likely than not” caused by Hanford radiation.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers had originally asked for $500 million to settle all the claims.
More trials are in process. About 20 other hypothyroid cases will be tried starting April 30, 2012. Trials are also planned but not yet scheduled for about 35 thyroid cancer cases and for 50 people with thyroid nodules.
All verdicts and settlements in the case will be paid by the federal government.