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Washington Radiation Suit Settled for $2.4 Million

By Hans Sherrer

On March 14, 2000, a classaction lawsuit by Washington State prisoners who participated in radiation experiments from 1963 to 1971 was settled for $2.4 million.

Sixty-four prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla were involved in radiation experiments conducted on their testicles. The men were recruited by Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, who was associated with the University of Washington, and the experiments were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission. Now known as the Department of Energy, AEC officials wanted to know the effects of radiation on the development of sperm, and multiple biopsies were performed on the participating prisoners' testicular tissue.

Robert Rhay, then Superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary, and Dr. William Conte, then Director of the Washington Department of Institutions, both encouraged prisoners to participate in Dr. Paulsen's program. The prisoners received nominal payment at the time and they were required to undergo a vasectomy at the conclusion of the experiments.

In 1993 Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary encouraged the release of previously secret documents related to radiation experiments on human beings during the Cold War that were financed by the federal government. Among the information released were details of radiation experiments conducted on prisoners in Oregon and Washington. Although the prisoners involved were told their radiation exposure would be similar to a regular chest x-ray, some of them were actually exposed to radiation thousands of times greater than a typical chest x-ray.

After learning the details of the radiation experiments performed on them, several of the former prisoners filed a lawsuit in federal court in December 1996: Robert E. White, et al., v. Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, et al., No. CS-97-0239 RHW (E.D. Wash.); and Don Byers, et al. v. Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen (E.D. Wash.). The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Spokane, Washington, and it alleged the former prisoner's federal constitutional rights and Washington common law rights had been violated by the defendants. Among other claims, the plaintiff's alleged they hadn't given fully informed consent to take part in the experiments. The defendants Dr. Paulsen, the University of Washington, the State of Washington, Mr. Rhay and Mr. Conte were alleged to have violated 42 U.S.C. §1983. The federal government was named as a defendant under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §1346 et seq.

Of the 64 prisoners experimented on by Dr. Paulsen, 40 have died. Of the 24 survivors, 16 have come forward to prosecute their legal claims, although one is so sick he couldn't be deposed.

On January 20, 1999, the state defendants in the suit were denied summary judgment, but the federal government's motion to dismiss the claims against it for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was granted. See: White v. Paulsen, 997 F. Supp 1380, (EDWA 1998), [PLN March 99]. In response to the defendants' appeal of portions of the District Court's ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals directed the parties in the suit to participate in a settlement conference. The parties agreed to engage in private mediation and to stay the appeal while it was conducted.

On December 17, 1999, the District Court granted preliminary approval of a proposed settlement of the case that would pay the plaintiffs $2.4 million as a full settlement of all claims by the plaintiffs arising from the Paulsen Experiments. A provision of the settlement agreement was the defendants' denial of any claim or allegation made by the plaintiffs

Lawyers for the plaintiffs estimated the settlement amount was what they could reasonably expect to be awarded if the case went to trial. The federal government was the chief wrongdoer and faced the most financial liability, but the District Court had dismissed it as a defendant on technical grounds so the ability of the plaintiffs to recover damages for their injuries was significantly reduced.

If the $2.4 million is divided among the 16 currently involved in the suit, they will receive $150,000 each, minus attorney fees, costs and incentive awards. If all 24 living survivors make a claim, they will receive $100,000 each, minus deductions. Which are expected to consume half the award each plaintiff actually gets.

Considering that some of the former prisoners have suffered various maladies for more than 30 years, including swollen testicles, they are receiving minimal compensation. However, judgments around the country have shown that juries have a generally unsympathetic view of convicted criminals suing for compensation, even when they were the victims of heinous medical and scientific experiments. See; White v. Paulsen, USDC EDWA Case No. CS-97-0239 RHW

For a detailed history of this and other forms of medical experimentation on american prisoners, read Acres of Skin, sold by PLN on page 34.

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Related legal case

White v. Paulsen