Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.
464 U.S. 238 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984)

Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.

No. 81-2159

Argued October 4, 1983

Decided January 11, 1984

464 U.S. 238

Syllabus

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.

Held:

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. 464 U. S. 246-248.

2. The award of punitive damages is not preempted by federal law. Pp. 464 U. S. 248-258.

(a) The federal preemption 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. 190, 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

Page 464 U. S. 239

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, preemption 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. 464 U. S. 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. 464 U. S. 257-258.

667 F.2d 908, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 464 U. S. 258. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 464 U. S. 274.

Page 464 U. S. 240

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