A law firm representing several nuclear contractors has sent confidential settlement offers to hundreds of plaintiffs exposed to radiation from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during World War II and the early years of the Cold War who later developed hypothyroidism.
Plaintiffs claim the thyroid disorder is linked to plutonium produced at the site, and the settlement offer could represent a major movement in the long-running Hanford downwinders’ litigation.
“It’s the largest claim category in the Hanford case. If they agree to settle, there will be no trial” for hypothyroid plaintiffs, said attorney Kevin Van Wart of Kirkland & Ellis of Chicago, lead attorney for the contractors in the case filed in 1990.
Some 380 claims from plaintiffs with hypothyroidism have already been settled, most of those represented by lawyers in Spokane and Eugene. Plaintiffs with Los Angeles lawyer Brian Depew are considering the new offer.
However, Depew, of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, said Thursday that many of his clients are unlikely to accept the offer.
“They’ve made offers to my hypothyroid cases with a threshold (of plaintiffs) that need to accept before it’s finalized. It’s unlikely that we’ll meet the threshold. I’ve had people sobbing on the telephone,” Depew said.
Many of his clients are angry that the settlement offers are so low, considering their serious injuries and decades of medical bills for thyroid disease. Some have had repeated surgeries and suffer from a host of medical problems related to their disease, Depew said.
Hauser Lake, Idaho, resident Linda Michael, who is represented by Depew, got one of the settlement offers and contacted a reporter. The March 22 letter is marked “confidential” and gives her 60 days to respond to an offer to pay her $6,100 in exchange for dropping all claims against the nuclear contractors.
The offer from Kirkland & Ellis, approved by the U.S. Department of Energy, totals $524,600 for Depew’s 86 clients, according to Michael’s correspondence.
Some of the people on the list, including downwinder activist Lois Camp, of LaCrosse, Wash., are dead. Camp died in 2006, said her husband, Dee.
Spokane attorney Richard Eymann, who represents other downwinder plaintiffs, declined comment on the new settlement agreements.
Taxpayers covering defense, settlements
U.S. taxpayers are responsible for paying any settlement costs.
In an agreement reached in the early days of the Manhattan Project, the secret World War II effort to build the first nuclear weapons, the U.S. government agreed to indemnify the nuclear contractors making plutonium at Hanford, including corporate giants General Electric and E.I. DuPont de Nemours.
That means U.S. taxpayers have also been paying the legal bills for the Hanford contractors’ defense – over $60 million so far – as well as any settlements to individual plaintiffs and favorable verdicts in the Hanford case.
Hanford made plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1944 to 1990.
Michael, 64, was born in Spokane in August 1947 and lived in Ephrata and Moses Lake as a child, where her dad, Arthur H. Mayer, managed the Carnation Co.’s milk distribution plant.
“We had all the milk products we wanted,” she recalled.
After Hanford’s once-secret emissions were finally made public in the mid-1980s, scientists studying the health risks determined that dangerous iodine-131 was passed on through cows that ate contaminated grass.
Milk was the “pathway” that carried the radioactive element to kids’ small thyroid glands, where the radiation increased the children’s risk of getting thyroid disease or cancer later in life.
Michael said doctors had to “kill” her thyroid gland with two rounds of radiation after discovering when she was in her 40s that the gland that regulates metabolism was crowded with tiny tumors called nodules. She’s been on thyroid medication since and has also had heart problems.
She’s decided to reject the $6,100 offer.
“I don’t feel it’s good enough compensation. I’ve had so many health problems. It’s a terrible thing that happened at Hanford,” Michael said.
Settlement won’t end litigation
Even if the hypothyroid settlement stands, it won’t end the downwinders’ case, one of the longest-running civil actions in the federal courts of Eastern Washington.
The first downwinders’ trial for six “bellwether” cases began in April 2005. The jury returned verdicts for two plaintiffs with thyroid cancer, awarding them $544,759. The jury rejected the claims of the three hypothyroid plaintiffs.
Additional trials for plaintiffs with thyroid cancer and thyroid nodules are scheduled for early 2013, to be followed by trials for people who claim they were exposed to radiation in the Columbia River from Hanford’s early reactors.
After the lawsuit was filed in 1990, more than 2,300 people joined. That number has been slowly reduced through verdicts, settlements and withdrawals. Currently, 220 thyroid cancer claims and fewer than 100 hypothyroid claims remain.
Said Van Wart, “There has been real progress in resolving these cases. The numbers are way down now.”