Court upholds Hanford pipefitter $4.8M jury award

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writer September 5, 2008 

RICHLAND -- The Washington State Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 2005 jury award of $4.8 million plus $1.4 million in attorney fees for 11 laid-off Hanford pipefitters.

It decided all issues on appeal in the nine-year-old case in favor of the pipefitters, with the exception of one. It declined to require that the defendant in the trial, Fluor Federal Services, reimburse plaintiffs for miscellaneous costs in bringing the lawsuit. But it did increase the attorney fees owed to pipefitters to include recovery of the additional fees from the appeal.

"(The pipefitters) stood up for safety when everyone else put their heads down for fear of being fired," said their attorney, Jack Sheridan, in a statement. "It took a while, but this decision proves that the system works."

In 2005, a Benton County jury found that the pipefitters had been wrongfully dismissed from their jobs at the Hanford nuclear reservation. The pipefitters said they were targeted as whistleblowers.

Hanford contractor Fluor Federal Services appealed the decision on several grounds, including what it believed were procedural errors in the case and a state Supreme Court ruling made since the jury verdict.

Eight state Supreme Court justices agreed in the appeal decision that the jury award was proper and that any errors in evidence presented at trial, including testimony of other witnesses who claimed they were retaliated against by Fluor, were harmless.

The ninth justice considering the case, Richard Sanders, said the decision should have gone further. In an opinion that dissented in part, he said the pipefitters also should have been awarded out-of-pocket costs, such as attorney travel costs, which amounted to 3 percent of the total award.

"The decision is an important vindication for the right of workers to raise important safety and health concerns at a federal nuclear site," attorney Tom Carpenter said in a statement. He helped pipefitters through the Government Accountability Project in the early years of the dispute.

"It vindicates their interests and the interest of the public, and will resonate throughout the Hanford site for decades to come," Carpenter said.

The case stemmed from a 1997 incident in which seven pipefitters objected to installing a valve rated for less pressure than would be used in a planned test of radioactive waste pipes. They were laid off, but later a settlement was reached to rehire the workers.

Fluor laid off seven other workers to make room for their return, including four people who had supported the original whistleblowers. Then five of the original whistleblowers were laid off less than a year later.

In addition, the suit included a pipefitter who carpooled with one of the original whistleblowers and a worker who gave testimony in legal filings potentially damaging to Fluor.

Fluor argued unsuccessfully that many pipefitters have been laid off because of lack of work since 1997.

On appeal, Fluor said that a state Supreme Court ruling made in a different Hanford case, Korslund vs. Dyncorp, after the pipefitter jury award took away the pipefitters' legal standing. However, the court found that case did not apply because Fluor had already waived its right to bring up arguments about whether worker and environmental safety were in jeopardy.

The justices also found that although the lower court had made some errors in the case, the errors were generally harmless. They also upheld the portion of the jury award to pipefitters for future wages they lost when they were laid off, including the award to one pipefitter who had not asked for future wages.

DOE had paid Fluor's legal costs in the lawsuit up to the conclusion of the trial, on the condition that it might ask for the money to be repaid depending on the outcome of the trial. It did not reimburse Fluor for the jury award or for its costs in bringing the appeal, according to DOE.

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