A multimillion-dollar lawsuit that could have a large impact on the nuclear energy field was filed here today by former interior secretary Stewart Udall on behalf of 95 Navajo Indian workers, widows and children.
The suit accuses seven corporate defendants, including the Kerr-McGee Corp., of negiligently exposing Navajo uranium minors to hazardous radiation in the mines beginning in 1948. It seeks to recover $30 million, plus unspecified punitive damages from the defendants.
Many of the Navajo miners contracted cancer and died as a result of the exposure to radiation, the suit alleges. It also claims other miners have "suffered severe and permanent damage to their lungs and to other parts of their bodies."
The lawsuit is potentially significant because it asks the court to hold the defendants "strictly liable" for the alleged radiation contamination, meaning that the activity the miners were engaging in was so abnormally dangerous that it is not necessary for the plaintiffs to prove actual negligence by the defendants.
Udall said the concept of "strict liability" was first breached in an unrelated case involving Kerr-McGee and a former company worker, Karen Silkwood.
Silkwood, a worker in Kerr-McGee's Cimarron, Okla., plutonium plant, was killed in an auto accident in 1974 as she was driving to turn over allegations of unsafe conditions at the plant to a union official and a reporter. Her family was awarded $10.5 million in damages by a federal jury that held that Silkwood became contaminated with radiation because of loose safety conditions at the plant.
"It is a theory of law that says that if an activity is abnormally dangerous, all you have to show is that it is abnormally dangerous and that the defendants knew that," Udall said. "You don't have to prove actual negligence."
The suit lists 29 miners who are allegedly contaminated, as well as 31 widows and 35 children of deceased miners.
All of the uranium mining occurred on the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico and Arizona from 1948 to the mid-1960s.
In an interview, Udall said one example of the non-compliance was the posting of workers' compensation signs in English. None of the Navajo miners spoke or wrote English, he said.
Listed as defendants in the suit are the Kerr-McGee Corp. of Oklahoma; Kerr-McGee Oil Industries Inc., an Oklahoma subsidiary; Foote Mineral Co. of Pennsylvania; Vanadium Corp. of America, which merged with Foote in 1967; AMEX Inc., a New York firm; Climax Uranium Co. of Colorado; and Climax Molybdenum Co. of New York.
W. E. Heimann, general counsel and a vice president for Kerr-McGee Corp., said tonight: "We've not been served with any legal papers and cannot comment on the lawsuit until we receive more information and have the opportunity to review it." The other defendants couldn't be reached for comment.
The suit claims the Navajo miners were exposed to radiation in products they breathed in the course of their work.
The suit says the products produced odorless, tasteless and invisible gases.
It says the miners were not told they were in any danger from the allegedly radioactive gases.
Many of the plaintiffs listed in the suit were also named in a legal action filed against the government by Udall on behalf of Navajo miners in July and August. That suit, filed against the Department of Energy, contends that the Navajo miners contracted lung disorders and other diseases because of an alleged lack of safety in the uranium mines.