Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corporation is a dense court decision concerning statutory interpretation and punitive damages. But it is better known for the mystery at its heart: the unexplained 1974 death of Karen Silkwood, a twenty-eight-year-old divorced mother of three small children. In the quarter century since her death, Silkwood has become a symbol of the antinuclear movement in the United States.

The complicated legal action was occasioned by the radioactive contamination of Silkwood, a laboratory analyst at Kerr-McGee's Cimarron nuclear fuel-rod fabrication plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Silkwood, who had lived most of her life in small Texas and Oklahoma towns, had been working for Kerr-McGee for a little more than two years before a routine radiation check in early November 1974 revealed that she had been contaminated by plutonium, one of the most radioactive substances in existence. Subsequent tests disclosed that the radioactive poison persisted not only in Silkwood's person but in her apartment.

Before these unsettling incidents, Silkwood had complained about what she saw as Kerr- McGee's cavalier disregard for worker safety. Furthermore, as an elected union representative, she had been responsible for bringing the company's safety violations to the attention of the Atomic Energy Commission. So, when she discovered she had been exposed to extraordinarily high levels of radiation, she suspected that she might have been intentionally contaminated for her whistle-blowing. She also believed that the company had doctored photomicrographs of fuel rods in order to meet regulatory standards. On the night of November 13, 1974, she had made arrangements to show a reporter for the New York Times evidence of alleged Kerr-McGee illegalities. On her way to the meeting, she was killed in an automobile accident that has never been adequately explained.

After her death, Bill Silkwood, Karen's father and executor, sued Kerr-McGee in federal court for civil damages accruing from Karen's contamination. Because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a nuclear-industry critic, the Silkwood civil trial became a cause célèbre for the antinuclear movement. The Silkwood family was represented in court by the flamboyant attorney Gerry Spence from Wyoming. At the conclusion of the longest civil litigation in Oklahoma history, the jury found in favor of the Silkwood estate to the tune of $505,000 in compensatory damages and a staggering $10 million in punitive damages.

A myriad of legal motions and appeals stretched the case into the 1980s. The circuit court of appeals eventually overturned the punitive damages portion of the district court verdict. But on further appeal on January 11, 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, reversed the circuit court and reinstated the jury's finding of punitive damages. Although Congress in the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 had certainly intended to institute a comprehensive regulation of nuclear power, the Supreme Court concluded that the legislators had not meant to preempt the assignment of punitive damages against a nuclear licensee in a civil lawsuit. The holding remains controversial among some legal scholars who question the Supreme Court's reading of relevant nuclear regulatory statutes. Perhaps more importantly, the name Karen Silkwood continues to resonate in the memories of nuclear critics, abetted by books such as Who Killed Karen Silkwood? (1981) and popular films such as The China Syndrome (1979) and Silkwood (1983).

John W. Johnson University of Northern Iowa

Johnson, John W. Insuring against Disaster: The Nuclear Industry on Trial. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

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

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

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