Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp. - Case Summary

University / Undergraduate
Modified: 22nd Feb 2024
Wordcount: 568 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: Nuclear site employee's estate won punitive damages against nuclear facility operator for negligence after exposure to radioactive contamination.


Karen Silkwood, an employee of the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, was contaminated with plutonium in 1974. Despite following safety measures, she was found with high levels of radiation and her house was contaminated. Silkwood died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances. Her estate, represented by her father, Bill Silkwood, sued Kerr-McGee for negligence, among other things, and was awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The case reached the Supreme Court after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the punitive damages award, believing federal law preempted such an award.


The case primarily revolved around whether state law claims, particularly punitive damages, were preempted by federal law in the nuclear energy context. The company argued that the federal government had extensively regulated nuclear safety and that allowing punitive damages would conflict with federal regulatory schemes. On the other hand, Silkwood's estate argued that there was no conflict, and state law awards were a significant tool for deterrence and punishment for negligence in the industry.



The case is a landmark ruling upholding the role of state law and jury awards in regulating industries of national significance. The case was critical in establishing that federal law did not preempt the use of punitive damages as a means of deterring and punishing negligence in the nuclear industry. The case continues to have significant implications for tort law and regulatory law, particularly in the context of federal and state law interactions and the role of punitive damages.


The US Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice White, held that punitive damages were not preempted by federal law. The Court affirmed the award of compensatory damages and reinstated the award of punitive damages. Justice Blackmun filed a concurring opinion, while Chief Justice Burger and Justice O'Connor dissented.


  • Farber, D.A. (1988). 'Silkwood'. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 136(4), 1547-1585.
  • Prather, C. (2016). 'Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corporation: A Case Study in Nuclear Whistleblowing'. Energy Law Journal, 37(1), 59-72.

Journalist Brief

The Silkwood case was about a nuclear site employee who was exposed to radioactive contamination, which her family argued was due to negligence by the nuclear facility's operator. Despite federal regulations, the Supreme Court ruled that state law had a role to play, particularly in awarding damage compensation. This landmark case underscored the importance of punitive damages as a deterrent and punishment for negligence, holding industries accountable for their actions.


What was the Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee case about?

Answer: It was about whether a nuclear facility operator could be held liable under state law for negligence leading to a worker's exposure to radioactive contamination.

What was the court's decision in the Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee case?

Answer: The Supreme Court held that punitive damages against the nuclear facility operator were not preempted by federal law.

Why is the Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee case significant?

Answer: The case is significant because it reinforced the role of state law and compensation damage awards in regulating industries of national interest, like the nuclear industry.

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