Firm to Settle Silkwood Case : Kerr-McGee Will Pay $1.38 Million to Estate

Times Legal Affairs Writer

The 10-year-old plutonium contamination case of the late Karen Silkwood, which made her a folk heroine and inspired the popular 1983 movie, “Silkwood,” ended Friday when Kerr-McGee Corp. agreed to pay her estate $1.38 million.

Lawyers in Oklahoma City said Kerr-McGee did not admit wrongdoing by settling the suit. The film starring Meryl Streep as the 28-year-old Silkwood was based on the short life of the laboratory analyst at Kerr-McGee’s Crescent, Okla., nuclear plant, who was found to be contaminated with high levels of plutonium on Nov. 5 and 7, 1974.

Silkwood died six days later in a one-car accident on her way to meet a New York Times reporter and an officer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union to give them documents she believed proved health and safety violations at the plant. The documents were never found.


The civil suit was filed by her father, Bill Silkwood of Nederland, Tex., as administrator of her estate, on behalf of her three children.

In 1979, an Oklahoma City federal court jury awarded the family $10 million in punitive damages for Kerr-McGee’s conduct in allowing plutonium to escape its facility; $500,000 for personal injury to the young woman, including exposure to future cancer had she lived; and $5,000 for damages to her property when Kerr-McGee representatives tested her apartment for--and found--plutonium contamination.

Twice Before High Court

The case made two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court by way of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. In 1981, the circuit court overturned the personal injury award on grounds that Silkwood was entitled only to a workman’s compensation claim and threw out the $10-million punitive damage award on grounds that it impinged on the federal government’s authority to regulate nuclear safety.

The Supreme Court reinstated the punitive damage award but said Kerr-McGee could contest the amount and claim that the $10 million bore no reasonable relationship to the $5,000 remaining in actual damages.

Last year, the circuit court authorized a new trial on the issue of Kerr-McGee’s conduct and the amount of any punitive damages, a decision the Supreme Court let stand last May.

Kerr-McGee spokesman Rick Pereles said Friday that company officers “believe we would have prevailed” in a new trial but agreed to the out-of-court settlement to avoid further litigation costs, which could have totaled more than the $1.38 million.


Father Feels Vindicated

Silkwood’s father said he felt “pretty good” about the case’s resolution and felt vindicated because, although Kerr-McGee would “never admit their guilt,” the original jury “found them guilty of gross negligence.”

Jim Ikard, the family’s attorney, said Karen Silkwood’s three teen-age children, who live with their father in Ardmore, Okla., have waived any future claims against the energy company.

Ikard said about $500,000 of the settlement will be divided equally among the children and that about $70,000 will go to Silkwood’s father for estate expenses in maintaining the civil suit. The remainder will be paid to attorneys.

Ikard said he and two colleagues who represented the Silkwood family had lost income during the lengthy litigation.

“I could have made more working at a Burger King,” he said.

Months of Negotiations

Pereles, the Kerr-McGee spokesman, said the settlement resulted from several months of negotiations.

“Today marks an end in the chapter in the history of Kerr-McGee that has been difficult,” he said. “By putting this matter behind us, we now focus our effort to improve the business results of Kerr-McGee.”

William Paul, the Oklahoma City attorney who defended Kerr-McGee and is president of the National Conference of State Bar Presidents, said recently in New York City that the case “took 10 years off my life.”