Exposing Workers to Radiation Costs ExxonMobil $1.2 Million
Oil titan ExxonMobil must pay nearly $1.2 million to a group of 16 former contract workers who were exposed to radiation, following a recently affirmed judgment from the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.
The 16 workers were employees of Intracoastal Tubular Services, or ITCO, located in Harvey, Louisiana. As a contractor for ExxonMobil, ITCO and its employees were responsible for cleaning pipes used in underwater oil exploration equipment. The scale buildup inside those pipes contained radium, a highly radioactive substance known to cause cancer.
The workers allege that ExxonMobil knew about this danger for decades, but intentionally concealed the information to avoid having the Harvey site reclassified as a hazardous waste site. Internal ExxonMobil documents revealed that the reclassification would cost the company $750 million the first year, plus $150 million each following year. ExxonMobil ultimately informed ITCO of the radiation in 1987, and ITCO stopped cleaning the oil pipes soon after.
ExxonMobil denies wrongdoing, insisting that it immediately informed all of its contractors and the appropriate regulatory agencies upon discovering the possibility of radioactive material in the pipes. The company also states that the 16 workers in the suit have no real damages for which to sue, noting that none of them has radiation-related health complications. ExxonMobil has settled out of court with several ITCO employees who have developed cancer, including three who were formerly attached to this lawsuit.
The appeals court found that the workers’ lack of illness or injury did not make them ineligible for damages, citing a ruling from 1974 that established “fear of contracting a disease” as a compensable type of mental anguish or distress.
“‘While to a scientist in his ivory tower the possibility of a cancerous growth may be so minimal as to be untroubling, we are not prepared to hold that the trier of fact erred in finding compensable this real possibility to the[se] worrying workmen,’” said the appeals court, quoting from the 1974 opinion.
The workers had sought significantly more than the $1.2 million awarded to them. They asked for damages of between $50,000 and $150,000 per employee, $1.3 million for medical monitoring and another $15 million in punitive damages. Ultimately, the jury denied the medical monitoring and punitive damages, awarding between $10,000 and $175,000 to each worker. The actual amount they will receive is based on each worker’s estimated radiation exposure.
“We are pleased the jury rejected almost all of the plaintiffs’ claims,” said ExxonMobil representative Margaret Ross in a statement. “We remain disappointed that the plaintiffs’ attorneys rejected our standing offer to pay for screening tests that would show the workers have no physical injury.”
Years of Lawsuits
The Harvey site has been mired in a swamp of litigation since 2001, when a New Orleans jury ordered ExxonMobil and ITCO to pay an astonishing $1.056 billion to the owner of the land leased by ITCO. One billion of those dollars were punitive damages for company conduct one appeals court called “inexcusable.”
The punitive damages were reduced to $112.29 million on appeal. According to the court, the ten-figure award constituted “an irrational and arbitrary deprivation of Exxon’s property.” After unsuccessful appeals, ExxonMobil paid the reduced damages with interest.