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Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee: 1979

Near Disaster

Three weeks into the trial something happened that raised the question of nuclear safety throughout the United States. A nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania had a near meltdown. For most Americans, the disaster at Three Mile Island was their first experience of the potential for nuclear calamity. The incident cast an inevitable pall over the Silkwood suit, enough for Kerr-McGee chief attorney Bill Paul to move for a mistrial. After careful consideration, Judge Frank Theis denied the request. On hearing this decision, the Silkwood team heaved a vast sigh of relief. Lacking the limitless financial resources of Kerr-McGee, they were fighting this action on a shoestring; any delay would only play into the hands of the $2-billion giant.

Disgruntled, Bill Paul called Kerr-McGee's star witness, Dr. George Voelz, health director at the prestigious Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Voelz testified that, in his opinion, the level of contamination displayed by Karen Silkwood fell within AEC standards. Spence thought otherwise. In a cross-examination lasting two days, he drew one embarrassing retraction after another from the frazzled scientist. Central to Voelz's theme was a model used to arrive at the standards. Spence showed how Karen Silkwood in no way conformed to the average person used in the model, she had been less than 100 pounds and a heavy smoker, both factors that influence the chances of contamination. Also, Spence extracted from Voelz the grudging admission that he really didn't know the level of plutonium exposure necessary to cause cancer.

In his final instructions to the jury, Judge Theis spelled out the law: "If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, … Kerr-McGee … is liable."

On May 18, 1979, after four days of deliberation, the jury decided that Kerr-McGee had indeed been negligent and awarded $505,000 in damages. A gasp swept the courtroom when the jury added on their assessment for punitive damages: $10 million.

It was a huge settlement, one obviously destined for the appeal courts. The litigation dragged on until August 1986, when, in an out-of-court settlement, Kerr-McGee agreed to pay the Silkwood estate $1.38 million, which amounted to less than one year's interest on the sum originally awarded.

Many regarded Karen Silkwood as a nuclear martyr. To this day, the circumstances surrounding her death remain shrouded in mystery. Was she killed to be silenced? That may never be known. What is known is that the Silkwood estate's victory, modest though it may have ultimately been, sent the nuclear industry a clear message: Dangerous sources of energy demand unusually vigilant regulation.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Kohn, Howard. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? New York: Summit, 1981.

Rashke, Richard. The Killing Of Karen Silkwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

"Silkwood Settlement." Science News (August 8, 1986): 134.

Spence, Gerry. With Justice For None. New York: Times Books, 1989.

Stein, J. "The Deepening Mystery." Progressive (January 1981): 14-19.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee: 1979 - Near Disaster