Silkwood v. Gee Corporation

Decision Date11 January 1984
Docket NumberNo. 81-2159,KERR-M,81-2159
Citation78 L.Ed.2d 443,464 U.S. 238,104 S.Ct. 615
PartiesBill M. SILKWOOD, Administrator of the Estate of Karen G. Silkwood, Deceased, Appellant, v. cGEE CORPORATION, etc., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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. 246-248.

2. The award of punitive damages is not pre-empted by federal law. Pp. 248-258.

(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. ---, 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 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. 249-256.

(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. Pp. 257-258.

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

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 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-McGee 1 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

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 glove box. When some contamination was detected, a more extensive check was performed. A monitoring device revealed contamination on Silkwood's left hand, right wrist, upper arm, neck, hair, and nostrils. She was immediately decontaminated, and at the end of her shift, the monitors detected no contamination. However, she was given urine and fecal kits and was instructed to collect samples in order to check for plutonium discharge.

The next day, Silkwood arrived at the plant and began doing paperwork in the laboratory. Upon leaving the laboratory, Silkwood monitored herself and again discovered surface contamination. Once again, she was decontaminated.

On the third day, November 7, Silkwood was monitored upon her arrival at the plant. High levels of contamination were detected. Four urine samples and one fecal sample submitted that morning were also highly contaminated.4 Suspecting that the contamination had spread to areas outside the plant, the company directed a decontamination squad to accompany Silkwood to her apartment. Silkwood's roommate, who was also an employee at the plant, was awakened and monitored. She was also contaminated, although to a lesser degree than Silkwood. The squad then monitored the apartment, finding contamination in several rooms, with especially high levels in the bathroom, the kitchen, and Silkwood's bedroom.

The contamination level in Silkwood's apartment was such that many of her personal belongings had to be destroyed. Silkwood herself was sent to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory to determine the extent of contamination in her vital body organs. She returned to work on November 13. That night, she was killed in an unrelated automobile accident. 667 F.2d 908, 912 (CA10 1981).

Bill Silkwood, Karen's father, brought the present diversity action in his capacity as administrator of her estate. The action was based on common law tort principles under Oklahoma law and was designed to recover for the contamination injuries to Karen's person and property. Kerr-McGee stipulated that the plutonium which caused the contamination came from its plant, and the jury expressly rejected Kerr-McGee's allegation that Silkwood had intentionally removed the plutonium from the plant in an effort to embarrass the company. However, there were no other specific findings of fact with respect to the cause of the contamination.

During the course of the trial, evidence was presented which tended to show that Kerr-McGee did not always comply with NRC regulations. One Kerr-McGee witness conceded that the amount of plutonium which was unaccounted for during the period in question exceeded permissible limits.5 485 F.Supp. 566, 586 (W.D.Okl.1979). An NRC official testified that he did not feel that Kerr-McGee was conforming its conduct to the "as low as reasonably achievable" standard.6 Ibid. There was also some evidence that the level of plutonium in Silkwood's apartment may have exceeded that permitted in an unrestricted area such as a residence. Ibid.

However, there was also evidence that Kerr-McGee complied with most federal regulations. The NRC official testified that there were no serious personnel exposures at the plant and that Kerr-McGee did not exceed the regulatory requirements with respect to exposure levels that would result in significant health hazards. In addition, Kerr-McGee introduced the Commission's report on the investigation of the Silkwood incident in which the Commission determined that Kerr-McGee's only violation of regulations throughout the incident was its failure to maintain a record of the dates of two urine samples submitted by Silkwood.

The trial court determined that Kerr-McGee had not shown that the contamination occurred during the course of Silkwood's employment. Accordingly, the court precluded the jury from deciding whether the personal injury claim was covered by Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Act, which provides the sole remedy for accidental personal injuries arising in the course of employment....

To continue reading

Request your trial
925 cases
  • Perdue v. Crocker National Bank
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • 18 Julio 1985
    ...application of California law in the case at bar. As the United States Supreme Court explained in Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp. (1984) 464 U.S. 238, 104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443, "state law can be preempted in either of two general ways. If Congress evidences an intent to occupy a given fie......
  • Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Jersey
    • 20 Septiembre 1984
    ...Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 404, 85 L.Ed. 581 (1941). See generally Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., ___ U.S. ___, 104 S.Ct. 615, 621, 78 L.Ed.2d 443 (1984); Pacific Gas & Electric Co., supra, 103 S.Ct. at 1722; Fidelity Federal Saving & Loan Ass'n, supra, 458 U.S. at 1......
  • Arthur D. Little, Inc. v. Commissioner of Health and Hospitals of Cambridge
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
    • 1 Agosto 1985
    ...quoting Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 105 S.Ct. 1904, 1910, 85 L.Ed.2d 206 (1985). Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 104 S.Ct. 615, 621, 78 L.Ed.2d 443 (1984). Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation & Dev. Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, 216, 103 S.Ct.......
  • Emerald Steel Fabricators Inc v. Bureau Of Labor And Indus.
    • United States
    • Oregon Supreme Court
    • 15 Abril 2010
    ...analysis, where state and federal statutes set contrary standards or pursue contrary objectives. In Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 246, 104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443 (1984), a case that the court in ARC America cited as authority, the jury had awarded the plaintiff a judgment o......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 firm's commentaries
  • Automotive Preemption Case Has Buckman Front and Center
    • United States
    • LexBlog United States
    • 1 Mayo 2023
    ...medical product cases: Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009); Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470 (1996); Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984); Fulgenzi v. PLIVA, Inc., 711 F.3d 578 (6th Cir. 2013). None of those cases controlled. In Ford F-150, the “requirements” of the Energ......
  • The Death Of Environmental Common Law?: The Ninth Circuit's Decision In Native Village Of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp.
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • 8 Octubre 2012
    ...1, 4 (1981). He goes through Exxon in meticulous detail as well as a case relied on by the Exxon Court : Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984). Ultimately though, he reaches the same conclusion, albeit one after much more hand-wringing, as Judge Thomas did in his decision. He do......
38 books & journal articles
  • Appendices
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Social Security Disability Practice. Volume Two - 2014 Contents
    • 12 Agosto 2014
    ...of 197 See id. at *40–41. 198 Surrick , 449 F.3d at 522. 199 Id. at 530. 200 Id. at 532 (quoting Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 248 (1984)). 201 See supra Part II.F. 202 See supra Part II.G. 203 See supra Part II.E. SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY PRACTICE A-618 2007] PROFESSIONAL R......
  • Lindsey v. Tacoma-pierce County Health Department: Cipollone Revisited, Billboards, State Law Tort Damages Actions, Federal Preemption and the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 24-02, December 2000
    • Invalid date well. 46. Id. at 185. 47. Id. (citing Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519 (1977)). 48. Id. (citing Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 49. Id. As explained by the Third Circuit, this isbecause 'the scheme of federal regulation may be so pervasive as to make reasonable the infe......
  • The Landmark That Wasn't: a First Amendment Play in Five Acts
    • United States
    • University of Whashington School of Law University of Washington Law Review No. 88-1, September 2018
    • Invalid date
    ...against a prison guard in an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when a jury finds reckless or callous conduct. In Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984), the Court held by a 5-4 majority, which included Brennan that the award of punitive damages to the family of Karen Silkwood, who wa......
  • Arbitrary and Capricious: the Dark Canon of the United States Supreme Court in Environmental Law
    • United States
    • Georgetown Environmental Law Review No. 33-1, October 2020
    • 1 Octubre 2020
    ...intended.394 It was a timeless question: what were courts for? 387. Duke Power, 438 U.S. at 102 n.2. 388. Silkwood v. Kerr McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 282 n.12 (nuclear energy vital for the free world and unappreciated by those protesting it). 389. Id. at 258 (Justices Burger and Blackmun jo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT