There is a lot to be learned from the stories about other whistleblowers. Not just about the atrocious waste and abuse of authority in the maltreatment of these responsible individuals, but also about the failed systems intended to protect. While the rights of these individuals are being trampled, the system is failing: the courts, the agency IG’s and other offices, the government entities (EEO, FLRA, MSPB, OSC), and the whistleblower lobbyists in Washington, DC. On top of that, the stories cast a bright light upon some disturbing events in our national history.
Recent American Whistleblowing seems to have peaked in the early 1970’s, then largely disappeared before ramping up again in the last decade. A good overview of dozens of very recent whistleblowers is found at NWC (see below). Also, one of the clearest examples of the need for – and hazards of – whistleblowers, is presented below, in the Karen Silkwood story.
National Whistleblowers Center has an excellent list of whistleblowers, with three dozen short bios that tell their stories. Some of the stories are not so short. All are informative. The stories cover all sorts of topics, including:
- environmental protection: (Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Paul Jayko, Dr. David Lewis, William Marcus, & William Sanjour)
- public health failures: (Dr. Jonathan Fishbein & Jeffrey Wigand)
- national security: (Julia Davis, Sibel Edmonds, & Coleen Rowley)
- nuclear safety: (Vera English, Joe Macktal, & Roger Wensil)
- waste: (Dr. Janet Chandler, Ernie Fitzgerald, & Bunnatine Greenhouse), and
- political failures: (Daniel Ellsberg & Linda Tripp).
The movie Silkwood, made in 1983 and starring Meryl Streep, was the story of one of the earliest Whistleblower retaliation cases in U.S. history. It also happens to mark a transition in our culture, when citizens became emboldened to speak up about problems in the workplace.
In 1972, 23-yr-old Karen Silkwood hired on with Kerr-McGee in Crescent, OK, to work as a laboratory analyst in a plant manufacturing plutonium pins. She was elected to the local union’s bargaining committee. Two years into her job, on 11/5/74, she did a routine self-check and found she was contaminated with over 400-times the safe limit for Plutonium. Kerr-McGee conducted further testing, which required removal and destruction of contaminated property within her apartment. Just six days later, she had decided to go public with her story. She died mysteriously in an 11/13/74 car crash, while driving a thirty-mile trip to meet with a NY Times reporter. Her new Honda Civic had rear-end damage but no records of insurance claims; the police reported no evidence she had been run off the road.
The Kerr-McGee plant did not last much longer than Karen; it closed in 1976 though it was another two decades before it was declared fully decontaminated, in the mid-1990’s). Karen’s father Bill filed a lawsuit and a May 1979 jury verdict awarded the estate (her three young children) $505,000 in damages plus $10 Million in punitive damages. Two years later, this was reduced to $5,000 in an appeal decision. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1984 the appeal decision was reversed and remanded back. As the case was again heading to trial, Kerr-McGee settled, paying $1.38 Million while admitting no liability.
A Few Documents & Links
the Karen Silkwood Whistleblower Case
|Civ. A. No. 76-0888-Theis., 485 F.Supp. 566 (1979) decision.
Kerr-McGee argued that the contamination incident was an “exraordinary nuclear occurrence” (ENO), making the company immune, per a 1957 law. That law, Price-Anderson, was passed by Congress to promote the development of nuclear energy. The law was to expire in 1966, but it was subsequently extended in 1966, 1975, 1988, 2002, 2003 and again in 2005. It is now due to lapse in 2026. [link]
|667 F.2d 908 decision.
Kerr-McGee repeated their earlier argument on appeal and a panel of judges overturned the 1979 jury award. The earlier award was replaced with a judgment of $5,000 (yes, five thousand) to the estate of Karen Silkwood. [link]
|Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.: Federal Regulatory Scheme in Nuclear Energy Industry Does Not Preclude Application of State Tort Law (an article by Marcia H. Rimland).
A good analysis of why the 1957 Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act does NOT preclude Kerr-McGee paying the Silkwood estate. [link]
|464 U.S. 238 (104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443).
The Supreme Court heard the case on October 4, 1983. The decision was written by White; dissenting comments were written by Powell/Blackmun and Blackmun/Marshall. [link] * [link to a concise case brief]