The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Cook v. Rockwell International Corp. on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.
In 1989, FBI agents discovered plant workers at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant had been carelessly mishandling radioactive waste for many years. Landowners neighboring the former nuclear plant brought a federal civil suit against Rockwell and Dow Chemical Corp., seeking relief under both the Price-Anderson Act and state nuisance law. After fifteen years of pretrial discovery, a jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs, including $177 million in compensatory damages, $200 million in punitive damages, and $549 million in prejudgment interest. Defendants appealed, arguing the court failed to properly instruct the jury on the terms of the Price-Anderson Act. A panel of the Tenth Circuit agreed in Cook I, vacating the judgment and remanding for further proceedings in light of the Act’s correct construction. Plaintiffs then argued that even without the Price-Anderson Act claim, their state law nuisance verdict survived. Defendants countered that (1) the Price-Anderson Act prevents state law recovery where an Act claim, albeit unsuccessful, is advanced, and (2) the Tenth Circuit’s mandate in Cook I independently barred plaintiffs from relief on their state law nuisance claims. The district court ruled for defendants and plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit first addressed defendants’ argument that any state law claim was preempted by the unsuccessful Price-Anderson Act claim. The Tenth Circuit characterized this as a structure where unless a nuclear claim was large enough to fall within the Act’s regulation, there could be no recovery for damages. Noting that the defendants forfeited this argument in their first appeal, the Tenth Circuit reaffirmed the first panel’s holding that Dow and Rockwell forfeited any field preemption argument long ago. The Tenth Circuit found it implausible that Congress would have intended remedies to exist only for large-scale “nuclear incidents” while foreclosing remedies for smaller claims. The Tenth Circuit could find nowhere in the Act preempting or precluding remedies for state law claims if federal claims were not proved, and found it rather seemed to imply the opposite.
Turning to defendants’ second argument, that the court mandate in the first appeal required dismissal of plaintiffs’ state law claims, the Tenth Circuit again rejected defendants’ arguments. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Cook I and noted the prior panel expressly found the jury was properly instructed on the elements of a state law nuisance claim. The Tenth Circuit found that at the end of the first trial there was a properly instructed jury, legally sufficient evidence, and a favorable jury verdict as pertains to a state law nuisance claim. The Tenth Circuit similarly rejected defendants’ proposition that the prior Tenth Circuit panel had vacated the entire verdict, including the state law portion. This panel of the Tenth Circuit averred that the state law portion of the trial court’s verdict was untouched in Cook I and therefore was the law of the case, and nothing prevented the trial court from entering a new verdict on the state law claim alone.
The Tenth Circuit remanded the case with instructions for the district court to enter judgment on the nuisance verdict promptly. Judge Moritz concurred in the judgment of remand but disagreed that the court would be able to simply reinstate the nuisance judgment without a new trial.