Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp. – Case Brief

Summary of Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 104 S. Ct. 615, 78 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1984).

Facts: Karen Silkwood worked as a laboratory technician for Kerr-McGee Corp. at a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. Silkwood’s responsibilities included the preparation of plutonium pellets for fuel rods.

Silkwood became involved in union activities and investigated health and safety issues as the plant. She testified before the Atomic Energy Commission regarding violations of health and safety regulations and alleged that Kerr-McGee falsified inspection records.

A few months later, Silkwood performed a routine inspection and discovered that she had been exposed to dangerously high levels of plutonium. The circumstances of the contamination were highly unusual and Silkwood alleged that she was the victim of retribution for her whistle blowing activities. Kerr-McGee claimed that she had contaminated herself deliberately to generate negative publicity for the company.

Silkwood claimed that she had assembled documents to support her claims and arranged to meet a journalist for the New York Times. Eight days after she initially discovered the contamination, she was killed when her car drove off the road on the way to a meeting with the journalist.

Silkwood’s father, acting as administrator of Silkwood’s estate, brought an action in diversity against Kerr-McGee to recover for the plutonium contamination to Silkwood’s person and property. There was no specific finding of how the contamination had occurred and the jury rejected the allegation that she had deliberately allowed herself to become contaminated.

The jury awarded Silkwood $505,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals reduced the award for compensatory damages to $5,000 and held that punitive damages were preempted by federal law. Silkwood appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue: Does the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s exclusive authority to establish safety standards for the operation of nuclear power plants foreclose the availability of state law tort remedies?

Holding and Rule (White): No. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s exclusive authority to establish safety standards for the operation of nuclear power plants does not foreclose the availability of state law tort remedies.

The federal preemption of state regulation of nuclear power does not extend to the state-authorized award of punitive damages. Regarding legislative intent, there is ample evidence that Congress had no intention of forbidding the States to provide remedies for those suffering injuries from radiation in a nuclear plant. Kerr-McGee is unable to point to anything in the legislative history of the Price-Anderson Act which established an indemnification scheme for operators of nuclear facilities or in the implementing regulations that indicates that punitive damages were not to be allowed.

In enacting and amending the Price-Anderson Act, Congress assumed that state law remedies were available to victims of nuclear incidents, even though Congress was aware of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s exclusive authority to regulate safety matters.

Preemption regarding damages for radiation injuries should not be judged on the basis that the Federal Government has so completely occupied the field of safety that state remedies are foreclosed, but on whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between the federal and state standards or whether the imposition of a state standard in a damages action would frustrate the objectives of the federal law.

The award of punitive damages does not conflict with the federal remedial scheme to impose civil penalties on licensees for violation of federal standards. The award of punitive damages does not hinder the purpose of the statute to encourage widespread participation in the development and utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes, since Congress disclaimed any interest in accomplishing this purpose by means that fail to provide adequate remedies to victims of nuclear incidents.

Disposition: Reversed and remanded.

See Rockingham County v. Luten Bridge Co. for a contract law case brief addressing the issue of the appropriate remedy where a party completes performance after receiving notice of breach by the other party.

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