464 U.S. 238 (1984), 81-2159, Silkwood v. Kerr-mcgee Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 81-2159.
Citation:464 U.S. 238, 104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443
Party Name:Bill M. SILKWOOD, Administrator of the Estate of Karen G. Silkwood, Deceased, Appellant, v. KERR-McGEE CORPORATION, etc., et al.
Case Date:January 11, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 238

464 U.S. 238 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443

Bill M. SILKWOOD, Administrator of the Estate of Karen G. Silkwood, Deceased, Appellant,



No. 81-2159.

United States Supreme Court.

Jan. 11, 1984

Argued Oct. 4, 1983.

Administrator of estate of deceased laboratory analyst at federally licensed nuclear facility brought state law tort action against facility to recover for plutonium contamination injuries to analyst's person and property. Judgment was entered on jury verdict for plaintiff for compensatory and punitive damages. The United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Frank G. Theis, Chief Judge, 485 F.Supp. 566, denied facility's alternative motion for judgment n.o.v. or for new trial, and facility appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, 667 F.2d 908, reversed as to punitive damages, and appeal was taken. The Supreme Court, Justice White, held that: (1) decision was reviewable on certiorari but not appeal, and (2) award of punitive damages was not preempted by federal law.

Reversed and remanded.

Justice Blackmun filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall joined.

Justice Powell filed a dissenting opinion in which Chief Justice Burger and Justice Blackmun joined.

[104 S.Ct. 616] Syllabus[*]


Appellant's decedent, a laboratory analyst at a federally licensed nuclear plant in Oklahoma operated by appellee Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corp. (hereafter appellee), was contaminated by plutonium. Subsequently, after the decedent was killed in an unrelated automobile accident, appellant, as administrator of the decedent's estate, brought a diversity action in Federal District Court based on common-law tort principles under Oklahoma law to recover for the contamination injuries to the decedent's person and property. The jury returned a verdict in appellant's favor, awarding, in addition to actual damages, punitive damages as authorized by Oklahoma law. The Court of Appeals, inter alia, reversed as to the punitive damages award on the ground that such damages were preempted by federal law.


1. The appeal is not within this Court's appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1254(2). The Court of Appeals held that because of the preemptive effect of federal law, punitive damages could not be awarded. It did not purport to rule on the constitutionality of the Oklahoma punitive damages statute, which was left untouched. The decision, however, is reviewable by writ of certiorari. Pp. 620 - 621.

2. The award of punitive damages is not pre-empted by federal law. Pp. 621 - 627.

(a) The federal pre-emption of state regulation of the safety aspects of nuclear energy, see Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, 103 S.Ct. 1713, 75 L.Ed.2d 752 (1983), does not extend to the state-authorized award of punitive damages for conduct related to radiation hazards. There is ample evidence that Congress had no intention, when it enacted and later amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, of forbidding the States to provide remedies for those suffering injuries from radiation in a nuclear plant. Nor is appellee able 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. Rather, it is clear

Page 239

[104 S.Ct. 617] that in enacting and amending the Price-Anderson Act, Congress assumed that state-law remedies were available to those injured by nuclear incidents, even though Congress was aware of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's exclusive authority to regulate safety matters. Insofar as damages for radiation injuries are concerned, pre-emption 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. Pp. 622 - 626.

(b) The award of punitive damages in this case does not conflict with the federal remedial scheme under which the NRC is authorized to impose civil penalties on licensees for violation of federal standards. Paying both federal fines and state-imposed punitive damages for the same incident is not physically impossible, nor does exposure to punitive damages frustrate any purpose of the federal remedial scheme. The award of punitive damages does not hinder the purpose of 42 U.S.C. § 2013(d) "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 those injured by exposure to hazardous nuclear materials. Finally, the punitive damages award does not conflict with Congress' intent to preclude dual regulation of radiation hazards, since, as indicated above, Congress did not believe that it was inconsistent to vest the NRC with exclusive regulatory authority over the safety aspects of nuclear development while at the same time allowing plaintiffs like appellant to recover for injuries caused by nuclear hazards. P. 626.

667 F.2d 908 (10th Cir.1981), reversed and remanded.


Michael H. Gottesman argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were Arthur R. Angel, Robert M. Weinberg, Jeremiah A. Collins, James A. Ikard, Gerald L. Spence, and Daniel P. Sheehan.

C. Lee Cook, Jr., argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief wereWilliam G. Paul, L.E. Stringer,

Page 240

Elliott C. Fenton, Larry D. Ottaway, William T. McGrath, Pamela J. Kempin, and Richard R. Wilfong.

John H. Garvey argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Lee and Deputy Solicitor General Bator.*

* Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the National Women's Health Network by Anthony Z. Roisman; for the State of Arizona et al. by Robert Abrams, Attorney General of New York, Peter H. Schiff, and Ezra I. Bialik, Assistant Attorney General, Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General of Arizona, andAnthony B. Ching, Solicitor General, Joseph L. Lieberman, Attorney General of Connecticut, and Peter J. Jenkelunas, Assistant Attorney General, Tany S. Hong, Attorney General of Hawaii, and Michael A. Lilly, First Deputy Attorney General, William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana, and Kendall L. Vick, Assistant Attorney General, Francis X. Bellotti, Attorney General of Massachusetts, and Stephen M. Leonard, Assistant Attorney General, Brian McKay, Attorney General of Nevada, Irwin I. Kimmelman, Attorney General of New Jersey, and James J. Ciancia, Assistant Attorney General, Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., Attorney General of Ohio, and E. Dennis Muchnicki, Assistant Attorney General,Leroy S. Zimmerman, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina, and Richard P. Wilson, Assistant Attorney General, Jim Mattox, Attorney General of Texas, and David R. Richards, Executive Assistant Attorney General, and Jim Mathews, Assistant Attorney General, John J. Easton, Jr., Attorney General of Vermont, and W. Gilbert Livingston, Assistant Attorney General, Bronson C. La Follette, Attorney General of Wisconsin, and A.G. McClintock, Attorney General of Wyoming; and for the State of Minnesota by Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General, andJocelyn Furtwangler Olson, Special Assistant Attorney General.

A brief of amicus curiae urging affirmance was filed by Harry H. Voigt, Michael F. McBride, and Linda L. Hodge for the Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc.

A brief of amicus curiae was filed by Joseph H. Rodriguez and Michael L. Perlin for the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate.

Michael H. Gottesman, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

C. Lee Cook, Jr., Chicago, Ill., for appellees.

John H. Garvey, Lexington, Ky., for U.S. as amicus curiae.


Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Last term, this Court examined the relationship between federal and state authority in the nuclear energy field and concluded that states are precluded from regulating the

Page 241

safety aspects of nuclear energy. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation & Development Comm'n, ---U.S. ----, ----, 103 S.Ct. 1713, 1724, 75 L.Ed.2d 752 (1983). This case requires us to determine whether a state-authorized award of punitive damages arising out of the escape of plutonium from a federally-licensed nuclear facility is preempted either because it falls within that forbidden field or because it conflicts with some other aspect of the Atomic Energy Act.


Karen Silkwood was a laboratory analyst for Kerr-McGee1 at its Cimmaron plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. The plant fabricated plutonium fuel pins for use as reactor fuel in nuclear power plants. Accordingly, the plant was subject to licensing and regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) pursuant to the Atomic Energy Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2011-2284 (1976 ed. and Supp. V).2

[104 S.Ct. 618] During a three-day period of November 1974, Silkwood was contaminated by plutonium from the Cimmaron plant. On November 5, Silkwood was grinding and polishing plutonium samples, utilizing glove boxes designed for that purpose. 3 In accordance with established procedures, she checked her hands for contamination when she withdrew them from the

Page 242


To continue reading