'I Didn't Give Up'

For more than two decades, Richard Eymann fought the U.S. government on behalf of Hanford downwinders

Published in 2020 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine

Personal injury attorney Richard Eymann’s past lives as a a police officer, an Army intelligence officer and a consumer investigator for the D.C. government steeled him for just about anything. That includes a 43-year legal career that has seen more than 80 jury trials, with 10 verdicts topping $1 million; and three settlements topping $10 million.

But Eymann, founding partner at Eymann Allison Hunter Jones in Spokane, says the Hanford radiation litigation was in a category of its own: “massive” compared with everything else. It involved hundreds of sick clients and a 22-year David-and-Goliath battle with the U.S. government.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was built in 1943 to produce plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. A small, sagebrush-covered agricultural community, Hanford was chosen because its sparse population left room for an enormous facility, and its proximity to the Columbia River assured water for cooling the reactors. 

Most of its 51,000 employees, largely brought in from elsewhere, had no idea they were making a key ingredient for atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan in August 1945. They also didn’t know that, starting in 1944, as many as 25,000 “downwinders” in Eastern Washington, northern Oregon and parts of Idaho were being exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine.

“It was dispersed into the air, and that falls like light snow into things like pastures. And cows then eat the grass, which introduces it into their milk, and then into distribution,” he says. “And in those days, everybody drank milk. Kids were told, ‘The only way you’ll be pretty and strong is to drink milk,’ so that was how it got into thousands of children. 

“The younger they were, the more susceptible they were,” says Eymann, 75, who grew up on a farm 400 miles away, near Eugene. “I’ve always identified with the kids who I represented later on. They were the same age as me.”

In the 1970s, just after he started law school at Gonzaga University, Eymann ran into a doctor with thyroid cancer. “I suspect it’s Hanford,” the physician had told him.

Eymann flashed back to that conversation 20 years later when law firms across the state began suing the U.S. government on behalf of Hanford-area residents with thyroid diseases. “I thought, ‘Wow, so maybe there is an explanation for this,’” he says. “The only known cause of thyroid cancer is radiation. If they catch it early enough, [doctors] remove the thyroid and then they can live a normal life. But if they don’t catch it early enough, they die, and it’s an extraordinarily long, painful death.”

In 1993, two years after a number of attorneys filed what came to be known as the “downwinder” suit, a judge asked Eymann to step in and assist another lawyer. A court had ruled against a class action and consolidated the individual cases for litigation purposes. 

“That made it extremely more expensive for the plaintiffs,” he says. “The defense had all the money they wanted.” His co-counsel ended up out of the picture, leaving him with 707 clients. About 500 more wound up in other firms. After whittling away those he felt he couldn’t prove, Eymann proceeded with 453 cases. The majority of the plaintiffs were suffering from thyroid cancer or related conditions.

Five of the downwinder cases went to trial in 2005 in Spokane, with Eymann serving as lead counsel, arguing in federal court that the government had never disclosed the contamination over the span of roughly 40 years. The jury rejected the two hypothyroidism claims, gave low six-figure awards to two plaintiffs with thyroid cancer, and deadlocked on the fifth, that of Shannon Rhodes, whose case was retried the same year. 

By that time, Rhodes’ cancer had advanced significantly. “The poor lady was, at the second trial, in such bad shape, it was hard to even put her on the stand,” Eymann recalls. The jury found in favor of the government; Rhodes died less than a year later.

On top of the heartbreak of watching his clients worsen or die while waiting for their cases to be resolved, Eymann and his legal team were blistered by the government’s “scorched-earth defense.” 

“We were outspent by tens of millions of dollars,” he says, noting that his firm was one of only two left standing at the end of the Hanford ordeal in 2015. “While we were winning motion after motion, while we were able to defend all of our experts, they would be filing motions all the time. It was like standing at the bottom of a dam and having the water wash across the top of you continually, being able to survive the flood and rise above the water, only to be hit again.”

In his opinion, the downwinders never got real justice, although his plaintiffs or their estates eventually received confidential settlements totaling $3.4 million. Some, however, got nothing. 

“I’ve taken on a lot of cases in which other lawyers, even my own partners, have said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Eymann says. His efforts for the downwinders earned acclaim from the American Board of Trial Advocates, while his efforts on other cases earned him the 1995 Trial Lawyer of the Year from what is now the Washington State Association for Justice. The engraving on the award—a bust of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who coincidentally hailed from the downwind area—reads, “For your outstanding skills, advocacy and your willingness to help the poor and the powerless, in bringing the rich and the powerful to justice.” 

The real reward was the gratitude of the downwinder clients. “I look back on it this way: I didn’t give up,” Eymann says. “I took it to the very end, utilizing every resource that I had available to me. And in the end, I had hundreds of clients who thanked me for holding the United States government accountable for something that they should never have been afflicted with. 

“I’ll always be very, very proud of having done that.”

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