Flats, Busted

Lawsuits against Rocky Flats, like plutonium, last forever.

Rockwell's legal fees in the class-action case, like Dow's, are being paid by the federal government, which indemnified both companies when they contracted to run the plant. Those legal fees have already topped $60 million, and there are years of appeals left. The government will foot the bill for the jury verdict, too -- unless, Alley suggests, it instead argues that the companies violated their contracts by "committing fraud. That's what the government argued in the Stone case."

His client has yet to see a penny of the $4.2 million judgment.

The plaintiffs in the class-action case have waited almost as long as Stone. The past sixteen years have taken a toll -- some plaintiffs have passed on -- and yet they fought on. "It's a classic struggle of the people versus the biggest institutions in America," says Bruce DeBoskey, the Denver lawyer who already had a history of taking on Rocky Flats when he filed the case back in 1990. "We recognized that it would be a monumental struggle. It's amazing that the plaintiffs stood their ground and waited."

They waited while the courts considered the two lawsuits DeBoskey originally filed -- one on behalf of Rocky Flats workers, the other on behalf of nearby residents. They waited while the latter suit made its way through the courts, and the 11,000 to 12,000 property owners around Rocky Flats were officially certified as a class in the mid-'90s. They waited while Kane held the DOE in contempt of court and fined the agency half a million dollars because it had stonewalled on document production.

They waited while DeBoskey and the two major plaintiffs' firms he'd enlisted in the cause -- all working on contingency -- fought a defense "with a blank check signed by the government," a defense that showed no interest in settling. Ultimately, DeBoskey couldn't wait as long as the plaintiffs -- he took a job as a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League -- but his heart remained with them, and he was in court the day the verdict was read.

"For 25 years in this community, there have been people accusing not just the companies, but the government of lying to the people," says DeBoskey. "And finally, after all that, the citizens got to tell their story to an impartial panel of citizens."

"One of the golden rules we learned in kindergarten is that if you make a mess, you clean it up," Louise Roselle, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said in closing arguments. "Dow and Rockwell messed up big time with one of the most dangerous substances on earth."

The jurors agreed. And after their verdict was read, lead defense attorney David Bernick -- a kindergarten classmate of mine, by the way -- demanded that the ten remaining jurors be quizzed to determine if any pressure had been put on them to side with the rest. "As a juror," one juror told the court, "I'm insulted that we're even going into this."

The jury verdict has already been cut down to about $350 million to comply with state laws. And both sides have filed motions with the judge regarding jury confidentiality and other issues that are no doubt bound for "the court of second conjecture," Kane says.

But in the meantime, for so many who have waited so long, the justice of that verdict is sweet enough.

After his many days of testimony, but still months before the verdict came down, Jon Lipsky visited the one Rocky Flats building he'd never seen during all of his time at the plant -- the old payroll office on Highway 93, now converted to the Rocky Flats Lounge. "I've been to every building," he said, "except here."

Business has been slow at the bar since the plant closed, since the cleanup ended. But you can still buy cold beer, as well as the T-shirt that Lipsky picked up: "I got nuclear wasted at Rocky Flats."

Didn't we all.

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