DENVER -- A federal appeals court ruled there was not enough evidence to support a theory Oklahoma nuclear plant worker Karen Silkwood had been intentionally contaminated with radioactivity before her 1974 death and overturned a judgment giving $10.5 million to her estate.
In a 2-1 decision Friday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed only $5,000 for property damage caused when some furniture and clothing in the woman's apartment had to be destroyed because of radioactive contamination.
The court rejected a May 1979 federal court jury award in Oklahoma City of $500,000 for personal injuries and $10 million for punitive damages against the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corp., which operates the plutonium processing plant in Crescent, Okla., where Miss Silkwood worked as a laboratory analyst.
'The evidence that Kerr-McGee employees might have disliked Silkwood ... and that plutonium could and did escape the plant is not enough to support a finding that Kerr-McGee operatives intentionally exposed Silkwood to contamination,' the court said.
Kerr-McGee attorneys called the appellate decision 'justice,' but an attorney for Miss Silkwood's parents called it 'absurd.'
'To me, this is justice. We've seen it today,' Kerr-McGee lawyer Bill Paul said. 'I felt good about being a lawyer after this happened. After the trial, I felt bad about being a lawyer.'
Arthur Angel, one of four attorneys retained by Bill and Merle Silkwood of Nederland, Texas, called the ruling 'absurd.'
'They are saying we don't have the right to sue under state common law for civil wrongs,' he said.
Angel said he and the other Silkwood attorneys would have to read the ruling completely to plan their next move, but they might ask for a hearing before the full appeals court.
The 28-year-old divorced mother of three was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter to discuss alleged safety violations at the plant when her car hit a concrete wall and she was killed. The FBI and local authorities officially ruled her death in November 1974 an accident.
An autopsy revealed her body contained between 25 and 50 percent of the permissible lifetime plutonium contamination allowed by the Atomic Energy Commission for plutonium workers. The autopsy also showed traces of the drug Quaalude in her stomach.
In its 30-page majority ruling, the court said the personal injury claim should have been made under the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Act because the 'only reasonable inference' was that all the plutonium found in her body came from working with and around plutonium or from the preparation of job-related urine samples that were 'spiked.'
A book published earlier this year by author Richard Rashke claims Ms. Silkwood may have stumbled onto a plutonium smuggling plot and her death may have been the subject of a cover-up by the CIA, the FBI and Iranian agents.
In 'The Killing of Karen Silkwood,' Rashke, an investigative reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, said Miss Silkwood told a friend 'she had found out that 40 pounds of plutonium, enough to make almost three atomic bombs, were missing from the plant.'
The court ruled punitive damages could not be awarded in the case because the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 pre-empts any state remedy authorizing punitive damages.
The majority opinion said the state could not compete substantially with the AEC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in its regulation of radiation hazards associated with plants handing nuclear material.
'A judicial award of exemplary damages under state law as punishment for bad practices or to deter future practices involving exposure to radiation is no less intrusive than direct legislative acts of the state,' the court said. 'Thus we hold punitive damages may not be awarded in this case.'