A Philadelphia law firm filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle on behalf of Washington state prisoners used in radiation experiments in the 1960s.
The Berger and Montague firm’s known for taking on high-profile cases, including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the massive Hanford downwinders’ case, and the Ivan Boesky-Michael Milkin securities fraud litigation, where it helped recover $1.5 billion for shareholders.
“We work on government abuses of power, including illegal and immoral experiments on human guinea pigs, ” said lead trial attorney Stanley Siegel.
The new suit was filed Thursday in Seattle on behalf of Robert E. White and other inmates involved in the Washington State Penitentiary experiments.
White, a Seattle resident, was an inmate at the prison in Walla Walla from 1963 to 1968. After his testicles were bombarded with X-rays, White suffered rashes, pain and severe emotional distress, and is now at increased risk for developing cancer, according to the lawsuit.
White was “harmed, both physically and emotionally,” by the experiments, the complaint says.
The suit was filed this week because that’s when the statute of limitations expires - three years from the date Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary publicly condemned the Cold War experiments.
Following an 18-month review of hundreds of human experiments, a White House committee in October 1995 concluded the prison experiments were unethical because the inmates were a captive population and were not fully informed of the risks. The committee also concluded cancer risks from the experiments were low.
The lawsuit names 12 individuals and institutions, including Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, a retired University of Washington Medical School professor. Paulsen “interviewed, selected, supervised, counseled, coerced, and practiced non-therapeutic experimental medicine on at least 64 inmates of Washington State Penitentiary,” according to the suit.
Paulsen’s goal was to find the radiation dose that would make men temporarily sterile.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission paid for his work because it was interested in radiation’s effect on the fertility of nuclear workers, soldiers and astronauts. The AEC was the precursor to the Energy Department.
In a 1994 Spokesman-Review series on the experiments, Paulsen said he used inmates “because they weren’t going anywhere.” Reached Friday in Seattle, Paulsen said he had no comment on the new lawsuit and referred a reporter to attorney David Martin. Martin represents Paulsen and the University of Washington, also named in the suit.
“This is all brand new to us. The first we heard of it was yesterday,” he said.
Paulsen has kept in contact with White since he was released from prison, Martin said.
“Dr. Paulsen has assisted him in securing some care. We are unaware of any physical conditions that any of the participants currently have that were related to the radiation experiments,” Martin said.
Also named in the suit are two Hanford contractors: General Electric Co, which ran Hanford in the ‘60s and invited Paulsen to perform the experiments; and Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, which helped calibrate the X-ray equipment used at the prison.
A Battelle spokeswoman said Friday the company’s attorneys hadn’t received the complaint and couldn’t comment.
UW and its medical school are named because they authorized Paulsen’s work and received money from the AEC for the human experiments. The AEC officials who approved them, Dr. James Leslie Liverman and Dr. John Randolph Totter, are also named.
So is Robert Rhay, Washington State Penitentiary warden at the time the experiments were carried out; Dr. William Bremner, Paulsen’s associate; Dr. C.E. Heffron, the chief medical officer at the prison while Paulsen was conducing the experiments; and William Conte, Washington state’s chief prison official at the time.
Washington state was not named directly. But the attorneys filed a related tort claim with the state this week.
If it isn’t resolved within 60 days, the attorneys can then sue in state court on behalf of the inmates, Siegel said.
The attorney general’s office also hasn’t had time to review the lawsuit, said Scott Blonien, an assistant attorney general representing the Department of Corrections.
After 30 years, the names of most of the inmates still haven’t been revealed.
In its 1994 series, The Spokesman-Review identified four participants: Martin Smith, Don Byers, Melvin “Mike” Briggs and James Bailey. Another, Don Kreitz, has stepped forward since.
Paulsen, the UW and Washington state officials all refused the newspaper’s request to release the identities of all the Washington inmates.
But several inmates said they couldn’t reach Paulsen to discuss ailments they developed after the experiments - even though he’d promised to be available to them.
In 1975, Paulsen told federal officials no medical follow-up was necessary and his malpractice insurance would cover any lawsuits resulting from the experiments, according a federal memo.
In the Washington suit, the attorneys ask for unspecified damages and a fund to track the health of the men involved in the experiments.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NAMED IN SUIT The lawsuit names 12 individuals and institutions, including the University of Washington and Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, a retired UW Medical School professor.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.