LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A former Los Alamos pathologist has agreed to pay $800,000 in a final settlement over tissue samples taken in secret from hundreds of bodies at Los Alamos Medical Center in a Cold War-era study into radiation.
Dr. Michael W. Stewart, who once worked at the hospital, agreed to pay the money to families of 304 people whose organs were taken for the study, said the plaintiff's attorney, John Bienvenu.
The settlement was approved last week by state District Judge James Hall.
Stewart was involved in a program in which pathologists at the hospital provided Los Alamos National Laboratory with tissue samples from hearts, livers, brains and other organs.
Families who signed autopsy release forms were not told of the study nor were they told the tissue would end up in the hands of government scientists, the lawsuit said.
The medical center and the University of California, which ran the lab at the time, agreed to settle their part of the lawsuit in 2001. More than 400 families shared $9.5 million under that settlement.
Stewart, who admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, had argued the claims against him were barred by the statute of limitations, court records show.
His lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Los Alamos lab conducted a study between 1959 and 1980 — primarily with tissue from autopsies conducted at the medical center — to determine how much radiation lab workers and area residents absorbed and how their bodies processed it. The study helped establish long-term limits to radiation exposure.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 1996 by Katie Kelley Mareau, whose father, Cecil Kelley, died in January 1959 after being exposed to a plutonium mixture at the laboratory. His organs were the first tissues removed for the study.
The lawsuit alleged neither Mareau nor her mother knew her father's body was missing eight pounds of organs, tissues and bones when they buried him.
Stewart was added as a defendant in 1999.
Bienvenu expects members of the lawsuit to receive payments under Stewart's agreement this summer. About $200,000 of the settlement will go for attorneys' fees, according to court documents.
The court documents show that Stewart and other defendants contended autopsies were authorized by family members or by state law that defines the duties of coroners and medical examiners.
The lab, when it settled its part of the lawsuit, acknowledged that "express consent to use the autopsy tissue may not have been obtained from next of kin."
The lab said that "while the program was conducted with the best of intentions and within the legal and ethical standards of the time, if initiated today it would be conducted under current informed consent practices that are more formal and highly detailed."
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, www.abqjournal.com, The Santa Fe New Mexican, www.sfnewmexican.com