Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corporation

PETITIONER: Silkwood
RESPONDENT: Kerr-McGee Corporation
LOCATION: Police Car

DOCKET NO.: 81-2159
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 464 US 238 (1984)
ARGUED: Oct 04, 1983
DECIDED: Jan 11, 1984

ADVOCATES:
C. Lee Cook, Jr. - on behalf of the Appellees
John H. Garvey - as amicus curiae
Michael H. Gottesman - on behalf of the Appellant

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 04, 1983 in Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corporation

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Silkwood against Kerr-McGee Corporation.

Mr. Gottesman, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Michael H. Gottesman:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is a tort action arising under state law.

It was in the federal court because of diversity of citizenship.

The occasion for this tort action is that plutonium escaped from a manufacturing plant of the defendant and that plutonium contaminated Karen Silkwood and her apartment.

And the complaint in this action, resembling complaints that have been filed, I suppose, for time immemorial in the courts of this... of the states of this nation, sought compensatory damages for both the injury to person and to property and punitive damages for this state law tort.

The jury awarded both compensatory and punitive damages.

The court of appeals, the court below, affirmed in part the compensatory damage award and reversed it in part.

For all purposes here that... the rulings on the compensatory damages are not important except that the court rejected an argument of the defendant that compensatory damages were preempted by the Atomic Energy Act, and in fact held that compensatory damages could be awarded, and in fact affirmed an award of compensatory damages for property damage.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now, the only compensatory damage award that remains in the case, as I understand it, is the $5,000 property damage award.

Michael H. Gottesman:

That is the only award that remains in the case.

There is a debate between the--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And the entire $10 million punitive damages has to hang then on the $5,000 property damage, is that correct?

Michael H. Gottesman:

--Well, at the present... in the present posture of the case--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

At present?

Michael H. Gottesman:

--Yes.

In the present posture of the case, the punitive damage award, if it were not preempted, the court of appeals would have to address, number one, whether that size award can properly be predicated on the property damage award; and number two, if not, whether there should be a remittitur or whether there should be a retrial on the amount of punitive damages.

William H. Rehnquist:

Does Oklahoma law, so far as you know, as to punitive damages draw any distinction between a property damage award and a personal injury award?

Michael H. Gottesman:

None, Your Honor.

The courts have squarely held that punitive damages may be awarded for property damage alone, or for personal injury alone, or for both.

The standards are identical in both cases.

And the measure of punitive damages in Oklahoma relates to the gravity of the harm threatened by the defendant's reckless or malicious conduct.

So that there have been a number of Oklahoma decisions which have set aside in part a compensatory damage award and yet still affirmed in full the punitive damage award.

But in any event, that issue is not here.

That issue is the next one for the Tenth Circuit to address once it's established that punitive damages are not preempted.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Yeah.

Even if you won, it would be remanded then to determine whether that damages award is adequate as premised or... or excessive... excuse me... excessive as premised on only a $5,000 property--

Michael H. Gottesman:

Well, that issue would be before the Tenth Circuit.

There is a question whether Kerr-McGee has waived the right to make that claim because it didn't advance it, but certainly the question of whether it has been waived or not, and if not, the question of whether the award will sustain the punitive damage award are both for the Tenth Circuit to decide.