Veteran Sickened by Plutonium Brings Nationwide Class Action
Retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Victor B. Skaar filed a proposed nationwide class action on December 11, 2017 at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C., challenging the refusal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide disability compensation to veterans exposed to ionizing radiation. The case involves an incident that happened on January 17, 1966 after a mid-air collision of Air Force planes released four hydrogen bombs over Palomares, Spain. Skaar is being represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
Senator Richard Blumenthal '73, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services Committees, said, “The VA needs to step up and carefully and fairly review these veterans' claims. These veterans were exposed to dangerous radiation while they faithfully served our nation in the clean-up of the hydrogen bomb accident. They deserve a fair and consistent process for determining veterans’ benefits related to such exposure.”
The Palomares “Broken Arrow” incident irradiated the Spanish countryside with plutonium dust after two of the bombs’ non-nuclear explosives detonated on impact. In the following months, the U.S. military ordered approximately 1,600 service members to the site to search for airplane and bomb parts and remove irradiated crops and soil. It failed to provide service members with appropriate protective equipment, and many were exposed to radiation levels far exceeding current lifetime limits, according to the filing.
“For years, the Air Force denied the existence of any bioassay samples. When they finally admitted their existence, it was obvious that the samples showed we had been exposed to hazardous levels of plutonium,” said the lead plaintiff, Mr. Skaar, then a 29-year-old medical disaster control technician. “We also learned that the Air Force failed to follow up with necessary further testing. Over 50 years later, the VA continues to deny our claims that exposure to radiation at Palomares impacted our health.”
The VA refuses to recognize Palomares as a “radiation-risk” activity, and relies on a scientifically flawed methodology to systematically deny Palomares veterans the benefits other nuclear veterans receive. A recent report from Dr. Frank von Hippel, a Senior Research Physicist and Professor of Public and International Affairs emeritus at Princeton University concludes, “It appears that the dose estimates that have been made for the Palomares veterans are extremely uncertain and, in many cases, the maximum doses have been grossly underestimated.”
John Rowan, President of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), said, “Palomares veterans deserve access to all existing information about their exposure and a fair review of their claims for disability benefits as quickly as possible. They have waited far too long.”
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents VVA and its Connecticut State Council in a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking to compel the Department of Defense to release records it has long withheld related to Palomares. Skaar filed this motion for class certification after the Board of Veterans Appeals denied his claim for service-connected disability benefits.
“The VA has refused to acknowledge that Palomares veterans were exposed to extraordinary levels of plutonium without adequate protection,” said Derek Mraz ’19, a law student intern with the Clinic, which also represents Mr. Skaar in his proposed class action. “Will the VA recognize that these elderly, disabled veterans need care, or will they continue to suffer unacknowledged?”
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic was founded in 2010 to train law students and to serve the legal needs of veterans. Under the supervision of clinical professors, clinic students engage in litigation before administrative agencies and courts on a range of matters.