Payout Ends 8-Year Field Lab Battle

Times Staff Writer

Boeing Co. has agreed to pay $30 million to settle a lawsuit brought by neighbors of its Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County, ending an eight-year legal battle over the effect on public health of radioactive and chemical contamination at the lab.

Terms of the settlement were reached in September but were not immediately disclosed. They included a confidentiality agreement between Boeing and the remaining 133 plaintiffs in the case.

“All I can say is we are satisfied and our clients are satisfied,” said Barry Cappello, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Boeing spokesman Inger Hodgson declined to comment.

Initially about 300 individual lawsuits were filed against Boeing and the lab’s former owner, Rockwell International Corp.

The plaintiffs argued that pollutants from dozens of years of nuclear and rocket engine testing at the hilltop lab were responsible for a wide range of cancers, auto-immune disorders and tumors afflicting nearby residents.

A major contention in the lawsuits was that a partial nuclear meltdown at the lab in 1959 released more radiation than originally estimated. The accident was not widely publicized until 20 years later.

The company maintained for years that the meltdown posed no danger to its workers or the public.

But disclosure in 1989 of lingering low-level contamination from past nuclear projects sparked a furor and led Rockwell’s Rocketdyne division to halt nuclear research there the next year. Cleanup operations continue.

Scientists hired by the plaintiffs reviewed more than 8 million pages of company documents and concluded that the damaged reactor released up to 260 times more radiation than was released from a similar accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, according to court documents.

Experts also found links between chemicals used in rocket tests and nuclear research and numerous illnesses of people living in Simi Valley and the neighboring western San Fernando Valley, the documents say.

Individual payouts were based on a formula that considered specific illnesses, a person’s age, economic loss and other factors, according to one plaintiff. For example, a plaintiff diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in his mid-30s will receive $650,0000, while $5,000 will go to the grandson of someone who died of a brain tumor.

Plaintiff Margaret-Ann Galasso, 52, challenged her payment, saying the Santa Barbara law firm hired by the plaintiffs will end up with the lion’s share of the settlement, about 60%.

After subtracting Galasso’s proportional share of fees and costs, her $87,500 payment would be reduced to $35,000 for treatment of uterine cancer. She suggested that such low payouts would make it difficult for many victims to get the long-term care they need.

“This guy used us to get [nearly] $20 million,” said Galasso, who now lives in Florida. “That’s who I’m angry at.”

But Cappello said the payouts would provide money to people who watched family members die of cancer and for college tuition for children who lost parents. He said a majority of the plaintiffs have received their checks.

He defended his law firm’s portion of the settlement, saying it had battled since 1997 on behalf of lab neighbors and continued after the lawsuits lost their class-action status and half the plaintiffs were dropped from the case.

“We spent millions of dollars and went eight years without being paid,” Cappello said. “If there’s one disgruntled person, all I can say is ‘no comment.’ ”