High court clears the way for Hanford claims

By Chris Rizo | Dec 16, 2008

U.S. Supreme Court building

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)- The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the lawsuit against E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. and General Electric Co. over radiation exposure claims by residents near the Hanford nuclear reservation in eastern Washington State.

By not hearing the case, the nation's highest court set the stage for huge payouts for more than 2,000 people who say their health was damaged by radiation exposure from being downwind from the Hanford facility.

For their part, the companies have offered to settle with plaintiffs for $150,000 for thyroid cancer patients, $40,000 for patients with underactive thyroids and $10,000 for patients with thyroid nodules.

In one of the very few Hanford exposure cases that went to trial, the plaintiff's attorneys sought at least $20 million, the Tri-City Herald reported.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the companies were fighting claims that they are responsible for radiation exposure to people during and after World War II. That was when the site was used to manufacturer plutonium for the first atomic bombs.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored a jury award for one of the victims, Gloria Wise, and opened the door for additional claims against the contractors. DuPont and General Electric sued, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court ruling.

They said they should be immune from lawsuits because they were acting as U.S. government contractors. Federal taxpayers are paying for the Hanford contractors' legal defense -- and ultimately for any jury awards or settlements -- because of an indemnification agreement that dates to the 1940s.

The Hanford releases of radioactive iodine 131, a byproduct of plutonium production, were not disclosed until 1986, when U.S. Energy Department reports were declassified.

The case is E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Stanton, 08-210.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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