Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cook v. Rockwell International Corp

Sep 3: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit,  Case No. 08-1224, 08-1226 and 08-1239. The owners of property near the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (Rocky Flats) filed a class action against the facility's operators under the Price-Anderson Act (PAA), alleging trespass and nuisance claims arising from the release of plutonium particles onto their properties. The district court conducted a lengthy trial, resulting in a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff class. After a series of post-trial motions, the district court entered judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, awarding a total of just over $926 million, inclusive of compensatory damages, punitive damages, and prejudgment interest. Defendants, Dow Chemical Company (Dow) and Rockwell International Corporation (Rockwell), timely appealed the judgment, and the class members filed a timely
    The Appeals Court said, "Exercising appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court reverses and remands the case to the district court. We direct the district court to vacate the judgment and conduct further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

    By way of background,
Rocky Flats, located near Denver, Colorado, was established by the United States Government in the 1950s to produce nuclear weapon components. The government contracted with Dow to operate the facility from 1952 to 1975, and then with Rockwell from 1975 to 1989. Operations at Rocky Flats ceased in June 1989 after the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency searched the facility. Rockwell was subsequently charged with, and ultimately pleaded guilty to, certain environmental crimes at the site. The facility has since undergone remediation efforts and is now designated as a wildlife refuge.
    In an important part of the Appeals Court ruling the court said, ". . . the date of the occurrence controls when determining whether the nuclear incident took place prior to August 20, 1988. . . While the district court's decision to focus on the date of the occurrence was correct, its instruction failed to instruct the jury how to identify the date of the occurrence. Here, the "occurrence" constituting a nuclear incident in a PAA action must arise from Defendants' release of plutonium onto Plaintiffs' properties. The jury instruction ultimately given, however, permits consideration of Defendants' conduct prior to August 20, 1988, regardless of whether an 'occurrence' causing Plaintiffs' injury took place prior to that date. This is an important distinction, because certain conduct prior to August 20, 1988, might contribute to a nuclear incident, even though the release of plutonium might not have occurred until after August 20, 1988. For instance, if a defendant began improperly storing drums containing nuclear waste in 1987 and consistently failed to maintain them, but no waste leaked from the drums until after August 21, 1988, a jury could not find the 'occurrence' took place prior to August 20, 1988. . ."
    Access the complete opinion (click here).

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