Judge ends long-running Hanford downwinder case

Six downwinder cases were heard by juries in the Spokane federal courthouse.
Six downwinder cases were heard by juries in the Spokane federal courthouse. U.S. Marshals Service

The 25-year-old Hanford downwinder case filed in federal court was dismissed last week after all claims were settled, dropped or removed.

Judge William Fremming Nielsen issued the order, despite a request that the first claim filed in the case still be settled or brought to trial. The attorney for the case came forward after other claims had concluded.

Anyone still wishing to file a claim that releases from the Hanford nuclear reservation damaged their health will need to bring a new lawsuit. Finding an attorney to take the case could be a challenge. Attorneys in the consolidated case were for the most part dissatisfied with the compensation their clients received.

Neither plaintiffs nor attorneys for the defendants — all early Hanford contractors — have revealed settlement terms. The settlements ultimately are expected to be paid by the federal government, which indemnified the contractors.

About 15 years ago as many as 5,000 people were claiming their health was harmed by past radioactive releases from Hanford, according to attorneys for the Hanford contractors who were sued. Plaintiff attorneys put the number of cases at closer to 3,550.

Just six cases went to trial, with a jury awarding a combined $550,000 in two thyroid cancer cases.

Only a handful of claims went to trial.

Nielsen ordered that 12 claims be heard more than a decade ago to give attorneys guidance to work out settlement agreements in the case. The six claims picked by defense attorneys were either dropped before trial or dismissed by Nielsen as too weak to proceed.

Just two of the six cases picked by plaintiff attorneys that went to trial resulted in judgments. A jury awarded about $550,000 combined in 2005 to two plaintiffs with relatively high estimated exposures to radioactive iodine as children. They later developed thyroid cancer.

In Hanford’s earliest years radioactive iodine was released from stacks to drift downwind, with the largest releases in the 1940s. The contamination settled out on crops and pastures, with the primary route of exposure believed to be milk from cows that grazed on freshly contaminated grass. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid.

The last major group of plaintiffs reached a settlement agreement with defendants in fall 2015, and Nielsen called for any remaining defendants to come forward as he prepared to close the case.

The first claim in the case is believed to be one filed in 1988 by the estate of Frieda Seaman.

Just one stepped up, the estate of Frieda Seaman, who lived next to Hanford as an adult from 1944 to 1955. She later developed thyroid cancer and died from leukemia in 1976.

The defense has argued that even plaintiffs’ experts have said that risk was largely confined to people exposed as children.

The case had been filed in Oregon in 1988 and later ordered consolidated with the 1991 lawsuit in federal court in Eastern Washington.

Attorney Michael Bloom of Lake Oswego, Ore., argued that the case was just about ready to go to trial when it was consolidated with what would become thousands of subsequently filed claims. There was little for him to do in recent years but wait, he said.

However, Nielsen found that although the claim was pursued diligently before 2002, the estate’s attorneys did not appear at a single one of more than 50 status conferences in the case over the last decade.

The cost alone is staggering.

Judge William Fremming Nielsen

Dismissal of the claim is appropriate given the public interest in resolving the case, the judge said in a court order.

“The case has been languishing for decades without resolution,” he said. “The cost alone is staggering. Over the last decade, the court created trial tracks to speed along resolution, but Seaman did not take advantage of any opportunity to be added to a trial track or pursue litigation of the claims.”

The court considered financial or other less drastic sanctions against counsel for the Seaman estate. But Nielsen concluded “that dismissal is the most appropriate measure in light of the duration of delay and resolution of all other related claims.”

Bloom did not respond to a Herald request for comment.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews