In a victory for the nuclear power industry, a federal court jury Thursday rejected the claim of a former engineer at the San Onofre nuclear plant that he contracted leukemia because of radiation leaks at the facility.
The jury decided that attorneys for 63-year-old Glen James had not proven that he received enough radiation to cause his chronic myelocytic leukemia or that the plant's owners and operators had permitted unsafe conditions.
"I felt for a large company, they did rather well," said juror Genevieve Fitzwater, an administrative law judge for the Department of Motor Vehicles. "They followed the law [in terms of safety]. We all felt very sorry for Mr. James but you can't give away money to everybody you feel sorry for."
James and his wife, Doreth, had sought $25 million to $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Southern California Edison Co., the plant's operator and majority owner; San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns 20% of the plant, and Combustion Engineering Inc., a contractor at the plant located on the coast north of Oceanside.
James' attorney, Donald Howarth, had asked jurors to "send a message that a corporation should not put profit ahead of people." Initially the jury was split 5 to 3 in favor of James, but after three days of deliberations, it voted 8-0 in favor of the defendants.
The case had been watched closely by the operators of the nation's 119 nuclear plants, out of concern that a victory for the plaintiff could bring a tide of similar damage suits by workers with cancer.
James, who lives in Dominguez Hills, worked at San Onofre when the plant was cited and fined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the presence of "fuel fleas," microscopic bits of radioactive material, outside containment areas.
James worked at San Onofre from 1982 to 1983 and from 1985 to 1986 while employed as an engineer for private firms hired by Edison.
A federal jury last year deadlocked 7 to 2 in favor of Rung C. Tang, a former NRC inspector who claimed she got leukemia at San Onofre. Without admitting fault, Edison reached an out-of-court settlement with Tang to avoid a retrial.
In the James case, Edison attorneys worked harder to undermine the credibility of the plaintiff's main scientific witness, Dr. Harry Demopoulos. Demopoulos' connections with Hollywood celebrities, and his recent attempt to win a share of the estate of billionaire Doris Duke, were noted by defense attorneys.
Edison attorneys also brought more front-line workers, including retirees, to attest to Edison's concern for safety at San Onofre rather than relying on corporate officials.
Edison attorney Jack Reding said the jury was able to distinguish between "junk science and credible science and reach the right results."
Howarth's partner, Suzelle Smith, said the loss will not deter the law firm from bringing other cancer suits against San Onofre. One other damage suit against owners and operators of the facility has been filed and more are planned, Smith said.