SAN DIEGO (CN) – Representing cancer-ridden Navy service members who say they were exposed to radiation on a humanitarian mission in Fukushima, former Sen. John Edwards urged a federal judge Thursday to set a date for trial.
Over a decade after serving as John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election, Edwards now represents hundreds of Navy sailors who were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as part of a humanitarian mission trip to Fukushima, Japan — bringing food and supplies to the city in March 2011 after it was devastated by an earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
“We have all these sailors whose case is now five years old, who have died or are in the process of dying right now,” said Edwards, whose firm Edwards Kirby is based in North Carolina.
Edwards noted that some of his other clients have seen their children born with birth defects. He said he made the trip from Raleigh to San Diego to “try to get this thing moving.”
Japan’s earthquake triggered a nuclear meltdown at the power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., and Edwards’ clients say the radiation exposure has caused them to develop cancer and other illnesses.
The suit is one of two pending against TEPCo and General Electric in the Southern District of California — the first filed in 2012 and an additional lawsuit naming more than 150 sailors filed last month.
Thursday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino came after the Ninth Circuit ruled in June that the lawsuit could proceed in federal court, rejecting an effort to have the case sent to Japan.
Edwards urged Sammartino to bypass the procedural hurdles, “so we know there’s a deadline over there.”
“Instead of just staying still and going with the pleadings and the motions to dismiss, is there a way to get us a trial date and a structure,” Edwards asked.
“I hate to see these sailors and say we filed motions, went to the Ninth Circuit, went to Washington, and I hate to say I don’t know when [we’ll get our day in court],” Edwards said.
He asked for a May 2019 trial date.
TEPCo attorney Gregory Stone said the Japanese utility accepts responsibility for the radiation released but maintains the amount Navy service members were exposed to was negligible.
He thanked the service members present at the hearing for their efforts, but said that radiation exposure is not necessarily the cause of 300 to 400 sailors out of 70,000 on the humanitarian trip getting sick.
“It only indicates what epidemiologists tell us: people get sick at different times of their lives for different reasons,” Stone said.
“We don’t think the exposure was at a level sufficient to cause the injuries,” Stone continued, amid muttered comments from the audience. “They don’t agree with us and are probably talking about it now.”
GE attorney Michael Schissel said the length of the case and trial will be significantly impacted if GE remains a defendant in the case. Unlike TEPCo, GE is not admitting liability over the failure of its Boiling Water Reactors. Schissel said this would then require a liability phase at trial, significantly lengthening the process.
Sammartino called the case a “moving target” as the attorneys threw out different ideas for how best to approach setting deadlines and moving forward. She said she would issue an order setting dates.
In an interview with Courthouse News following the hearing, Edwards said they are pleased the case will be tried in America. If the case were in Japan, Edwards said there was a concern that the possibility of traveling across the world would cause his clients to lose hope.
“From the perspective of a lawyer, it’s a wonderful cause,” Edwards said. “Here are these completely innocent people whose lives have been taken away from some of them and they were there trying to help the Japanese people. It was such a just and righteous cause that they were there for and they’ve had their lives changed forever as a result of what happened.”
More sailors are coming forward every week, Edwards added, saying they expect the numbers to continue to go up as the word gets out about the lawsuits.
He said they want to make sure “the truth comes out” and that the “word gets out about the dangers and risks that exist not just in Japan, but in other parts of the world.”