What is an Environmental Lawsuit?
Environmental lawsuits encompass violations of a wide array of laws and regulations governing the safety of the environment. There are numerous laws and regulations designed to protect specific parts of the environment, including the air, water, and wildlife.
An environmental lawsuit typically involves situations that make the environment dangerous, unhealthy or unsafe, including:
- Air pollution
- Water pollution
- Toxic waste dumping
- Marine and ocean discharges
- Heavy metal contamination
- Chemical spills
- Oil spills
- Solid waste dumping
Lawsuits involving environmental and toxic exposure encompass a wide range of chemicals and substances that cause harm to human beings. Individuals can bring lawsuits or other claims based upon injury resulting from exposure that occurs in the workplace, at home, outdoors, or anywhere else. The laws governing claims for environmental and toxic exposure are complex and it is important to be familiar with them and the potential claims you may have if you are injured.
What is Toxic Exposure?
It most commonly results from inhalation or contact with the skin and may be caused by air pollution, water contamination, hazardous materials, chemical fumes, and residues.
Common Types of Toxic Exposure
- Asbestos – Asbestos is a natural mineral found in soil and rocks but was commonly used in construction materials up until the 1970s and is still contained in various other products.
- Lead Poisoning – Although lead is a natural metal found in the earth, it is toxic and human exposure can cause severe health problems. Cumulative exposure to lead affects multiple organs in the body and is especially harmful to children because it only takes a small amount to cause health problems. Lead was used in paint through the 1970s and is still permitted in small amounts in some products today.
- Oil Spills – Oil spills are not just harmful to the environment; they create toxic fumes that permeate the air. Oil is a mixture of toxic chemical compounds that are harmful when inhaled and can cause cancer and other illnesses.
- Chemicals – A variety of chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals used in food production can be toxic when inhaled or if they touch the skin.
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – This generally occurs in the home because of leakage from a variety of sources, including, gas stoves, furnaces, gas and water heaters, or even fumes from spray paint or paint remover.
- Water Pollution – Water can become contaminated from numerous sources, including pesticides or other chemicals from agricultural soil run-offs, discharges of mercury, lead pipes, or other dangerous chemicals from power plants.
- Air Pollution – Residential communities can be exposed to a variety of toxic air pollutants that are released from dry cleaners, gas stations, small metal plating operations and landfill sites.
- Soil Contamination – Contaminated soil is dangerous to human beings when there is direct contact with skin or through inhalation of toxic chemicals that may be in the soil.
Who Can File an Environmental Lawsuit?
Most environmental litigation is brought as a class action, after an individual complains about injury from an environmental pollutant such as asbestos. For example, if you live in an apartment building with asbestos and suffer adverse effects, there may be other tenants who also experience side effects and want to join your lawsuit.
Anyone who experiences property damage or bodily injury based upon environmental circumstances, might be eligible to bring a claim against any entity for violation of environmental law. Even where there is no personal harm, if you are aware that an environmental law is being violated, you can file a lawsuit.
What is a Class Action?
A class action is brought by people who are in a similar situation. In an environmental class action, the group of plaintiffs was likely injured or had their property damaged in the same manner by an environmental law violation.
Original Plaintiff Goes to Court:
This lawsuit begins when one or more people approach an environmental lawyer about an issue, and as the investigation proceeds the lawyer determines that a larger group of people was affected. Only the first lead plaintiff goes to court with his or her attorney, but everyone in the class is compensated if the lawsuit settles before trial or is found in favor of the plaintiff. Most class action lawsuits do not go to trial, but rather, are settled out of court.
Amount of Settlement or Award:
Plaintiffs in class action lawsuits receive money based upon the size of the class and the amount of damages incurred. The settlement or award is given in a lump sum and divided among the plaintiffs. We discuss more on class action settlements and awards under, How Much Can I Get from a Class Action Lawsuit?
What are the Most Important Environmental Laws?
Clean Air Act
This law empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to regulate air quality standards for air pollutants that are harmful to the health of human beings, are widespread, and come from a variety of sources. Once these criteria are met, the EPA must regulate the air pollutants.
What Air Pollutants are Regulated?
The EPA designates six classes of pollutants that must be regulated and updates them every five years. They are:
- Particulate matter, including dust, soot or other tiny particles.
- Sulfur oxides
- Ozone (Smog)
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Carbon monoxide
Clean Water Act
Originally established in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, this Act was amended in 1972, and called the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). This Act is a complex and technical law, but some important aspects are discussed below.
Requires a Permit:
Makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a “point source” into large navigable waters, such as lakes and rivers, throughout the nation, without first obtaining a permit.
Definition of Point Source:
Includes any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, container, concentrated animal feeding operation, landfill collection system, vessel or other floating craft that pollutants may come from. It does not include return flows from irrigated agriculture or agricultural storm water runoff.
EPA Creates Programs:
Gives the EPA power to create pollution control programs and set nationwide water quality standards for controlling waste. The EPA has a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program that regulates waste discharge.
Compliance is Monitored by States:
All except four states (Idaho, New Mexico, Massachusetts and New Hampshire), are authorized to monitor compliance with the permit program. The EPA must monitor compliance in those states.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act
In 1980, this law was passed to oversee the management of emergency clean-up of hazardous waste sites, accidents and spills. A superfund available to financially assist in efforts to clean up the accidents or spills.
Endangered Species Act
This law was passed in 1973 to protect animals and their habitats from becoming threatened or endangered. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service is one of the agencies responsible for administering this law.
What is Threatened?
This applies to any species of animal (except pest insects) or plant that is likely to become endangered in the future.
What is Endangered?
An endangered species is one that is already in danger of becoming extinct.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
This federal law governs the disposal of waste that is solid (non-hazardous) or hazardous. Under this law, the EPA developed regulations concerning the management of waste, and states have the power to create their own hazardous and non-hazardous waste programs.
What is Hazardous Waste? – Characteristics include that the waste can ignite, be corrosive, cause explosions or combust and be toxic.
What is Non-Hazardous Waste? -This type of waste is exempt from the hazardous waste regulations but still can be hazardous and is likely regulated under another law. Examples include, household waste (paints, batteries, automotive waste), agricultural waste, oil and gas drilling waste and utility waste from coal.
The Occupational Safety & Health Act (“OSHA”)
Passed in 1970, OSHA requires that employers provide a safe workplace to their employees. One important aspect of this law relates to the workplace environment and provides that employers must inform employees if hazardous chemicals or toxins are present.
How Will I Know if Toxic Chemicals are Present? Employers generally provide Material Safety Data Sheets (“MSDS”) that delineate the type of chemical and procedures for its use. Warning signs may also be posted.
What if I Do Not Know if I Was Exposed to Toxic Chemicals? If you are unsure whether toxic chemicals are in your workplace, it is important to ask your employer for MSDS sheets and read labels on any substances being used. Also, seek medical treatment for any side effects. Finally, follow any internal workplace procedures, file a complaint with OSHA, and possibly consult an attorney if you believe there is an OSHA violation.
What Agency Administers OSHA? The EPA is not responsible for this Act, but rather, it is administered by the United States Department of Labor, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. There are also state agencies that enforce workplace safety and health issues.
Federal Employees Compensation Act (“FECA”)
This law provides compensation and other benefits to federal employees who are injured or become ill on the job. If you are a federal employee and suffer illness or injury due to toxic exposure, it is important to consult the FECA provisions.
Who is Responsible for the Clean-up?
The EPA has authority to determine who caused the unsafe condition and can require that person or entity to clean the site. If the offender cannot be located, or refuses to comply, the EPA undertakes the clean-up and can sue the responsible party for the costs incurred.
When Should I Contact an Environmental Attorney?
If you believe an individual, business, or other entity is in violation of an environmental law, speaking to an environmental lawyer might help. An environmental lawyer can evaluate a case and determine if a lawsuit is appropriate. He or she might investigate claims of pollution, toxic waste dumping, the destruction of wetlands, chemical spills, solid waste dumping, wildlife protection violations, and improper usage of natural resources.
An attorney may also be aware if there is a class action that was filed regarding the violation, especially if a group of people has been affected by the violation in a similar way.
How Much Can I Get from an Environmental Lawsuit?
Amount of Award Varies:
The amount of money available in class action lawsuits varies from case to case depending on the size of the class and the damages caused by the violation. Class action money is given in one lump sum and then it is divided up among the class based on damages. A portion of the award is also used to pay the attorneys’ fees.
Bound by Class Action Settlement:
If you choose to join a class, you are bound by the terms and conditions of the settlement, which usually include giving up your right to sue on an individual basis. Therefore, it is imperative to speak to an environmental lawyer and assess all your options carefully. Anyone injured by an environmental law violation should consider both current and future needs.
What are the Penalties for Violation of Environmental Laws?
The penalties for violating environmental laws vary depending upon the agency that enforces the law. Penalties generally include the following:
Most environmental laws include monetary penalties. For example, the EPA can issue civil monetary fines and penalties based upon a specific formula that considers a variety of factors, including, the seriousness of the violation, good faith efforts to comply, and monetary gain for non-compliance.
The offending individual or entity is ordered to immediately stop the conduct that caused the violation.
In cases of negligent violation of an environmental law, the EPA Criminal Enforcement Program will investigate and prosecute complaints. Fines or imprisonment can result.
Removal of Federal Funding:
If a federal environmental law is violated, it is possible the entity involved may no longer receive federal funding or have its funds suspended.
How Else Can I Report an Environmental Law Violation?
Contact the EPA:
Other than filing a lawsuit, if you witness a violation of any environmental law you can contact the EPA through its website at https://echo.epa.gov/report-environmental-violations. There you can complete a form providing your contact information, or you may exercise the option to remain anonymous.
What Potential Violations Should I Report to the EPA?
There are many possible environmental violations to report to the EPA, and some include the following:
- Strong Chemical Odors
- Large Numbers of Dead Animals, including Fish and Birds
- Oil Slicks on the Water
- Containers that are Dumped at Irregular Locations and Hours
- Leaky or Corroded Waste Containers
What Not to Report to the EPA
The EPA does not have jurisdiction over the following:
- Automobile safety
- Consumer product safety
- Medical devices
- Cosmetic products
What laws govern environmental and toxic chemical exposure?
There are numerous federal and state laws that govern environmental and toxic chemical exposure. Some of the most important laws are explained below.
Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (“TSCA”) – This law regulates chemicals that are manufactured, used, distributed and disposed of within the United States. It was enacted to prevent the unreasonable risk of injury to the public health or the environment from chemicals that are regulated by the law.
The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – This law was passed in 2016 by President Obama, to amend the TSCA, and grant more power to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to protect the public from toxic chemicals. The new law includes:
- A mandatory requirement that the EPA evaluate chemicals within clear and enforceable deadlines.
- Increased transparency for the public regarding chemical information.
- A requirement that the EPA conduct risk-based assessments of chemicals.
- Consistent EPA funding to enable it to perform its duties under the new law.
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”) – This law regulates the registration and licensing of pesticides before they can be manufactured, used, or sold in the United States. Under FIFRA, the EPA is required to register pesticides and ensure the chemicals will not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.
Most states have laws regulating the use of some environmental pollutants, including chemicals. State laws vary widely in the type of regulations provided. Some states only regulate air or water pollution levels, while others have legal requirements for certain chemicals, including licensing and registration. It is important to be familiar with the relevant laws in your state if you decide to file a lawsuit for toxic exposure to chemicals.
State Workers’ Compensation Laws
If you become injured while on the job, you will typically be eligible to file a Workers’ Compensation claim in your state. It is important to consult the law in your state, but most Workers’ Compensation laws provide the following benefits.
- Medical Care
- Income Replacement (Generally a percentage)
- Rehabilitation or Re-training Expenses
- Compensation for Permanent Injuries
Who Is Covered by State Workers’ Compensation Laws?
Most categories of employees are covered, but states typically have some exclusions, including:
- Independent Contractors
- Farm Workers
- Maritime Employees
- Private Home Workers
- Railroad Employees
Who Can File an Environmental and Toxic Exposure Lawsuit?
Any individual who can establish that he or she has been injured by exposure to a toxic chemical or other environmental hazard, can file a lawsuit. The claim is typically based upon the negligence of an individual or entity, resulting in personal injury. If the injury happens in the course of employment, however, different standards apply.
Workers’ Compensation Claims
When employees are injured in the workplace, they are generally limited to filing a workers’ compensation claim, which is not based upon the fault of the employer. Employees are not permitted to file a separate lawsuit for damages unless certain exceptions are met, including third party liability or intentional acts by the employer.
If there is a violation of OSHA, the employee may also file a complaint under that law. OSHA covers most private sector and some public sector employers and employees.
Common Environmental and Toxic Exposure Workplace Injuries
Employees in all professions can potentially be exposed to toxins in their workplace, but those who work in manufacturing plants, mines or on construction sites are most vulnerable. Still, even office employees can suffer the ill effects of chemical exposure, particularly if their workplace is not properly ventilated.
How Does Toxic Chemical Exposure Occur in the Workplace?
Employees Who Work with Dangerous Chemicals
In the workplace, an employee may be exposed to toxic chemicals that he or she works with daily, particularly if the employee is not wearing adequate protective equipment. Even with protective gear, some chemical exposure can occur. In addition, not all chemicals result in immediate health injury, so it may take years to discover that an employee was harmed. Examples of toxic exposure can occur in a variety of workplace settings, including the following.
- Manufacturing of High-Tech Electronics – Production workers in manufacturing plants where electronic equipment is assembled, are exposed to a variety of hazardous substances, including solvents, acids, metals, gases, plastics, and fiberglass.
- Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company – OSHA cited an Ohio musical instrument manufacturer for exposing employees to unsafe levels of toxic copper dust.
- Indoor Gun Range – A Texas indoor gun range was cited by OSHA for violations when employees were exposed to unsafe levels of airborne lead, as well as surface contamination. The company failed to replace damaged personal protective equipment and monitor employees for lead-related illnesses they suffered.
Employees who work in offices may experience poorly ventilated rooms and what is commonly known as “sick building syndrome” in office buildings. Sick building syndrome generally occurs when there is inadequate ventilation and air fails to circulate properly. There are many different potential causes, including the following:
- Chemicals from Cleaning Products
- Formaldehyde (Found in Wood Furniture and Floors)
- High Levels of Dust Particles
- Mold or Fungus
How Does Toxic Chemical Exposure Occur in Residential Areas?
Residents in an apartment building or suburban neighborhood may be exposed to a variety of hazardous chemicals or fumes. Exposure to lead, asbestos materials or carbon monoxide are common injuries that residents may experience. Common environmental and toxic exposure injuries in residential areas include:
How Can I Suffer Lead Exposure?
Lead is a common source of environmental contamination in residential areas due to the plethora of products that contain lead. Lead fumes and dust are odorless, so it is difficult to know whether you are inhaling lead particles. Examples of products that may contain lead include the following.
- Lead Paint – Although banned in the United States in 1978, older buildings may still have it.
- Leaded Gasoline – Inhalation of leaded gasoline fumes can cause unhealthy lead exposure.
- Toys – Older toys or toys manufactured in other countries may contain lead paint. In addition, lead is not banned in plastics.
- Cosmetics – Certain unregulated cosmetics may contain lead particles.
- Lead Pipes – Drinking water that flows through lead insulated pipes can cause lead poisoning.
What Are the Symptoms of Lead Exposure?
Symptoms of lead exposure can be difficult to diagnose, and often do not appear until more dangerous amounts of lead accumulate. Higher levels of exposure in adults can cause anemia, kidney, and brain damage. Death can also result. Children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, since it takes just a small amount to cause harm.
- Abdominal Pain
- Loss of Memory
- Pain or Tingling in the Hands and/or Feet
- Developmental Delay
- Learning Difficulties
- Hearing Loss
- Weight Loss
Carbon Monoxide Exposure
Carbon monoxide is a gas that is odorless and colorless, making it a particularly dangerous toxin, especially in the home when sleeping. When carbon monoxide gets in the air and you inhale it, your body replaces the oxygen that is in your red blood cells, with carbon monoxide.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure can include:
- Nausea or Vomiting
- Shortness of Breath
- Loss of Consciousness
- Irreversible Brain Damage
Toxic Mold Exposure
Mold is a common toxin in buildings and homes, and typically grows in moist areas such as roofs, windows, or pipes, as well as in drywall, insulation, flooring, and wallpaper. Fortunately, mold is a toxin that can be seen and removed if it is found before it causes serious health issues.
Symptoms of mold exposure can include:
- Upper Respiratory Tract Symptoms (including cough, stuffy nose, and wheezing)
- Aggravation of Asthma
- Development of Asthma in Children
How Can I File a Toxic and Environmental Exposure Lawsuit?
If you believe that you or someone you know was exposed to any toxic substance, there are important steps you should follow.
Employment Related Injuries
- Workers’ Compensation Claim Only – If you suffer exposure from toxic chemicals while on the job, you must file a Workers’ Compensation claim. These claims are not based upon fault, and you can only recover lost compensation, medical bill reimbursement and benefits for permanent impairment, if any. You are precluded from filing a personal injury lawsuit unless a third party other than your employer is at fault, or your employer acts intentionally to injure you.
- Third Party Lawsuits – Employees who are injured in the workplace may have a claim against a third party if that individual or entity was negligent.
- Intentional Act of Employer – Another exception is if the employer injures an employee due to an intentional act. In this circumstance, the employee can sue for damages for pain and suffering.
- OSHA Violation – An employee who believes that his or her employer has created an unsafe workplace through the use of toxic chemicals, can file a complaint using this form, https://www.osha.gov/pls/osha7/eComplaintForm.html
Non-employment Related Injuries
- Seek Medical Treatment – If you have any health issues that you believe are caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, seeking medical treatment will document your injury and may help to determine the origin of your symptoms.
- Consult an Attorney – If you want to file a lawsuit you should consult with an attorney experienced in environmental and toxic exposure lawsuits. Since the time limitations to file personal injury claims are generally short, you should consult an attorney as soon as possible.
- Contact the EPA – Other than filing a lawsuit, if you witness a violation of any environmental law, including toxic chemical exposure, you can contact the EPA through its website at https://echo.epa.gov/report-environmental-violations. There you can complete a form providing your contact information, or you may exercise the option to remain anonymous.
What Do I Need to Prove My Claim?
To establish a claim of toxic exposure that is unrelated to employment, you will need to show the following:
- Injury – It is important to seek medical treatment for any potential exposure to toxic chemicals, so that injury is documented.
- Causation – The most important element of proof is establishing causation, or a connection, between your health symptoms and a specific toxic substance or chemical.
- Damages – Injuries resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals include, medical costs, loss of wages and earning capacity, and long-term physical impairment or disability.
- Legal Obligation to Compensate – You must show that some individual or entity is liable for compensating you for your injury.
Seeger Weiss’S Toxic Exposure Cases
Since 1999, we have won or favorably settled thousands of toxic exposure cases on behalf of our clients and their families, providing them with the support and guidance they need and making sure they receive the compensation they deserve.
Toxic Drywall Settlement
Seeger Weiss LLP represented close to 5,000 U.S. property owners against German company Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a worldwide distributor of drywall manufactured in China. Many of the plaintiffs were rebuilding their homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, only to discover that their new drywall was toxic.
How Much Did Plaintiffs Get?
As Lead Trial Counsel, the firm obtained successful verdicts in a succession of bellwether trials, or test cases, that were part of a multidistrict litigation, leading to a national settlement valued at about $1 billion.
Toxic Emissions Settlement
Seeger Weiss LLP, represented a massive class of nearly 600,000 consumers against automaker Volkswagen (VW), which equipped some of its Audi, Porsche and VW diesel vehicles in the U.S. with software designed to cheat emissions testing, polluting the environment at levels up to 40 times higher than registered.
How Much Did Plaintiffs Get?
Working in conjunction with United States government agencies, including the EPA, Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, Seeger Weiss LLP served on the plaintiffs’ steering and settlement committees and as one of the lead negotiators. Seeger Weiss LLP helped recover a $21 billion corporate settlement, the largest in history. It included a massive buyback program for consumers, environmental remediation, and investment in green vehicle technology. The firm continues to represent plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation.
Contact Seeger Weiss LLP
Environmental laws are complex and changing, so it is important to consult with attorneys who are experts in this type of law. To learn more about environmental lawsuits or to speak to someone about filing a claim related to the violation of environmental law, contact Seeger Weiss LLP, to schedule a free consultation.