After Judge Fleissig’s partial dismissal on March 27, 2013, six defendants and one count remain ‘alive’ in the Coldwater Creek lawsuit. The remaining count is a Federal claim falling under the Price Anderson Act (“PAA”) as amended in 1988. The Price Anderson Act is a series of amendments to the Atomic Energy Act that were intended to foster private sector participation in the nuclear energy industry.
In Count One of the complaint, Plaintiffs assert a public liability action under the PAA. A public liability action is a claim of liability related to a ‘nuclear incident’ – the release of nuclear by-products, special nuclear materials, and/or source materials – that causes bodily injury, sickness, disease, death, loss or damage to property, or loss of use of property. In its decision, the court agrees with the Plaintiff’s definition of a public liability action, and agrees that plaintiffs may bring such a claim in this particular court. However, the Judge found that claims arising out of a ‘nuclear incident’ may only be brought under the PAA (a federal law), and not under state law claims, such as negligence, emotional distress, and the other state law claims included in Counts Two through Eight. The judge quotes a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (“5th Circuit”), stating “A plaintiff who asserts any claim arising out of a ‘nuclear incident’ as defined in the PAA . . . can sue under the PAA or not at all.” Cotroneo v. Shaw Env’t and Infrastructure, Inc. 639, F.3d 186, 194 (5th Cir. 2011). The judge also looked to the decision of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Tennessee, in which the court dismissed state law counts in a class action for damages under the PAA and state tort law based on radiation releases at a nuclear fuel processing facility in Tennessee between 1957 and 2010, holding that the PAA completely preempted state law causes of action such as strict liability, wrongful death, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. For these reasons, the judge dismissed each of the state law claims in the lawsuit.
Because Missouri is not part of the Fifth Circuit, the Judge was not required to follow the determination of the court in the Cotroneo case, quoted above. Similarly, the judge was not required to follow the decision of the Eastern District of Tennessee. However, she was free to do so, where neither the U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri or the U.S. Court of Appeals (of which Missouri is a part) had ruled on this issue.
The next section of the judge’s decision revolves around the ‘duty of care‘ owed to the plaintiffs by defendants. In other words, how much care and attention were required of the defendants in their handling of radioactive materials – and should the court look to state or federal law in deciding the level of care and attention required? The court held that the duty of care owed by the defendants is determined by federal safety standards for maximum permissible radiation dose levels. The court can only rule in favor of the plaintiffs if they can show that the defendants caused the plaintiffs to be exposed to an amount of radiation exceeding the federal safety standards for maximum permissible radiation dose levels, and that such exposure caused plaintiffs’ injuries.
The required duty of care impacts the manner in which the Plaintiffs draft their complaint. Specifically, the defendants wanted the entire case dismissed because, they claimed, the Plaintiffs’ did not meet the requirements for drafting their pleadings (the complaint). Defendants claimed – and the judge agreed – that the Plaintiffs did not specifically claim that each plaintiff was injured because s/he had been exposed to radiation in an amount greater than the federal maximum requirement, or that each Defendant was the cause of such exposure. Plaintiffs claimed that the content of their complaint is sufficient, and that more specificity is not required at the time of pleading. Rather, Plaintiffs claim, more specifics will become available through the discovery process – especially since some of Defendants’ actions were performed secretly. The Plaintiffs requested that, if the court agreed with the Defendants, and found that their complaint required more specific allegations, the Plaintifs be given the opportunity to amend the complaints in order to meet the heightened requirements.
Ultimately, the judge found that “an essential element of a public liability action is that each plaintiff’s exposure exceed the federal dose limits (emphasis mine).” The court said that although the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals had not decided this issue (in other words, even though the court knew it was not required to), the court was going to follow the decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, which have concluded that “the maximum permissible radiation dose levels set by federal safety standards establish the duty of care for radiation injuries, and that imposing a non-federal [state] duty would conflict with federal law.”
Instead of dismissing Count One the case, however, the Court did grant Plaintiff’s request to amend the original complaint. The court ordered that the Plaintiffs shall have up to and including May 10, 2013 to “file amended complaints that sufficiently plead a cause of action under the PAA.” This means that the amended complaint must contain factual allegations of when, where, and how each Plaintiff was exposed; identify the federal permissible dose limit for each Plaintiff’s claim; and allege the radiation dose each Plaintiff received.
The court also ordered that the decision to deny Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss as it relates to Count One is without prejudice – although the judge did not dismiss Count One (the PAA claim), the Defendants are free to file new Motions to Dismiss after the Plaintiffs file their amended complaint.
The judge found that Missouri’s five-year statute of limitations in personal injury claims applies to claims under the PAA, and that defendants are free to raise their statute of limitations claims in response to the Plaintiffs’ amended complaint.
As far as the decision to dismiss the complaints against AFC and Citigroup, Inc., the Judge found that the two companies are not proper defendants in the lawsuit because the court lacks personal jurisdiction. In other words, the judge agreed with their arguments that they do not have significant contacts with Missouri, and that even if their subsidiaries have contacts with Missouri, AFC and Citigroup, Inc. cannot be held liable for the acts of those separately incorporated subsidiaries.