Defining the Boundaries of "Personal Injury": Rainer V. Union Carbide Corp

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION
I. RAINER'S FACTUAL BACKGROUND
II. RELEVANT PRECEDENT: DEFINING SUBCELLULAR INJURY
III. THE RAINER OPINION: REJECTING ASYMPTOMATIC DNA INJURY AS AN
      ADEQUATE CAUSE OF ACTION
IV. THE POST-RAINER WORLD: EVALUATING THE EFFECTS OF THE SIXTH
      CIRCUIT'S OPINION
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

For over fifty years, workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) in western Kentucky were exposed to dangerous amounts of toxic radiation--largely without their knowledge. Since the news of the exposure exploded onto the national press in the late 1990s, (1) over six thousand compensation claims have been filed with the Department of Labor, and more than $175 million has been paid out. (2) Other workers--joined by the Department of Justice--have opted to file separate lawsuits, claiming that the PGDP's operators fraudulently withheld information from them. (3) Individuals with property adjacent to the PGDP have also filed suit. (4) The legal fallout from the PGDP contamination is destined to keep federal courts busy for years to come.

This Comment focuses on just one group of PGDP workers and their families. This group consists of about thirty individuals who, over the course of the last quarter century, were exposed in various degrees to the dangerous toxins present at the PGDP. But, unlike the other workers filing compensation claims and lawsuits, these individuals have experienced no physical symptoms associated with their exposure. To the contrary, they are all healthy men and women. They are not sick, nor do they claim to be sick. This group of PGDP affiliates instead sued the plant's operators under a completely novel theory-that they have suffered asymptomatic damage to their DNA. Their claim was rejected by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Rainer v. Union Carbide Corp. (5) a case of first impression for the federal appellate courts.

This Comment addresses this case. Part I briefly discusses Rainer's factual and legal background. Part II analyzes the relevant precedent in the field. Part III summarizes Rainer's legal arguments and public policy considerations, and Part IV discusses Rainer's impact and highlights some of the problems left unanswered by the Sixth Circuit's opinion.

I. RAINER'S FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Uranium is a uniquely potent element. In its ordinary form, the element is extremely heavy. But through the "enriching" process, uranium becomes more commercially and militarily useful. The PGDP has, since its construction in the 1950s, enriched more than 100,000 metric tons of uranium. (6) In addition to its enrichment activities, the PGDP produced various unwanted and toxic waste products, including two particularly dangerous radioactive elements: neptunium-237 and plutonium-239. (7) Both are extremely long lived and are absorbed readily by the body. (8) Substantial medical evidence exists linking these two elements with aggressive forms of cancer. (9)

Of the four plaintiffs' classes in the Rainer case, three were comprised of current or former PGDP workers. (10) These individuals were exposed in various capacities to neptunium-237 and plutonium-239 while working at the plant. (11) The other plaintiff class was composed of family members who, although not directly exposed to these elements, claimed that they had been injured as a result of secondary exposure. (12) But, although neptunium-237 and plutonium-239 are known carcinogens, none of the Rainer plaintiffs was, as the district court noted, "sick." (13) They suffered from nothing that would be characterized as a physical manifestation of disease. Nor was it their intent to claim that they were "sick" in the traditional sense of the word. (14)

Rather, the plaintiffs alleged that they had suffered chromosomal damage that was undetectable to the naked eye. In support, the plaintiffs submitted affidavits from an array of medical experts, who testified that, although the plaintiffs' injuries were not apparent to a lay observer, they were nonetheless "physical injuries. …