Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood


In 1975, Silkwood's parents filed suit against Kerr-McGee for negligence on the part of Kerr-McGee resulting in Silkwood's plutonium contamination.

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Four years later, in 1979, the case made it to U.S. District Court. The lead attorney, Gerry Spence, a larger-than-life character, was chosen because he seemed "folksy." He wore a large, wide cowboy hat, and held court in front of the reporters. The case was about exposing the truth. "Tell the truth, man, tell the truth, man, to the whole world," he said with a smile, "to the all the nuclear industry, to the AEC, to everybody."

The two main points that the plaintiffs pushed were that the acceptable amount of exposure of plutonium was very much in question, an amount Kerr-McGee often exceeded, that the safety and that security at the plant was excessively lax—one employee testified to as many as 40 pounds of plutonium being simply missing.

The Silkwood family won: though the jury did not find that she was injured on the job and was not eligible for worker's compensation, the jury awarded the family $505,000 in damages, and for punitive damages, an award meant to send a message to big corporations: a shocking $10 million.

The case was appealed by Kerr-McGee. The United States Court of Appeals sided with Kerr-McGee and reversed the punitive damages.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the central question was whether federal law preempted Oklahoma law on punitive damages. On this question, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals remanded the case. The case was being retried, when the family finally settled out of court for a reported $1.38 million. Kerr-McGee admitted no liability.


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