HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCES/POLLUTANTS/TOXIC INJURY
Toxic Torts:We are all affected and involved
By Lawrence Landskroner
As we all know, the wealthy corporations can take care of themselves. Money enables them to hire very large law firms to take care of all their legal needs. Unfortunately, the common person cannot afford a lawyer unless the lawyer agrees to be paid from a portion of any recovery.
Recognizing a new group of aggrieved victims, there has been a revolution occurring in the law concerning the responsibility for injuries sustained from exposure to hazardous substances or environmental contamination. This new theory of law has been labeled the toxic tort. The critical question is whether a producer of hazardous chemicals is responsible for the reasonable use or misuse of its products beyond the immediate purchasers or people exposed to them. Fortunately, for the innocent victims, an affirmative answer is evolving.
I just returned from the American Trial Lawyers Convention in Seattle, Washington, where I spent a week studying the latest state of the law concerning toxic torts. The up-and-coming new area of responsibility will be the poisoning and the abuse of the public by large corporations concerning the irresponsible dissemination of their products and/or wastes. Most lawyers fail to recognize where the responsibility lies regarding the misuse and use of hazardous products because of their failure to look to the manufacturer, marketer, and retailer of the culprit chemical or product.
Cleanup of hazardous wastes and the legal liability from exposure to such hazardous substances is unquestionably the major environmental problem of our times. There has been much furor over this problem on the federal and state level as a result of the number of lawsuits regarding toxic tort product liability claims.
We all know that corporations, because of improper disposal of hazardous wastes, are contaminating the atmosphere, rivers, and streams. In addition, corporations are causing innocent members of the public to contract a variety of fatal diseases. Recently, the negligent cleanup of a train derailment and the resulting chemical spill caused a jury to render a verdict of $11.3 million compensatory and punitive damages. The award against the railroad was for the terminal lung cancer suffered by a 63 year old man and the damage to his property because of chemical contamination resulting from a train derailment.
Very recently a federal court rendered a judgment against the United States government and all of its agencies for cancer caused by fallout due to a toxic testing in Utah more than 30 years before. Prior to this ruling, one could only go back in time several years before the statute of limitations would terminate the right of recovery. The people downwind of the atomic testing sued in federal court proving that the federal government and its agencies had concealed the facts surrounding their knowledge of the dangers of the radioactive fall out. Investigation showed that the government actively concealed the dangerous nature of the radioactive waste from the public and gave the medical false information concerning the dangers in order to conceal the hazard that they had created. The innocent victims who sustained cancer due to their exposure to the radioactive wastes, dying more than 30 years after the exposure, were able to recovery from the government for its abominable activities.
One of the new dangers arising that is considered to be ultrahazardous is the use of fire-retardant building materials, furniture and fire extinguishers. The fire-retardent chemicals found in these products have been shown to cause extremely toxic effects to people who are exposed to these chemicals. These chemicals are just as deadly as the highly publicized Agent Orange (the most deadly and potent synthetic known to man), which has now been found to cause many side effects. There will be a new stream of litigation in the areas of cancers, birth defects, and other injuries arising from the use of these products.
Billions of dollars are in the process of being disseminated to people injured from contamination by dioxins ranging from accidental spills, domestic herbicide spraying, and other contamination. Some include not only standard claims for medical problems but claims for "cancerphobia." Some 2,300 Vietnam veterans who opted out of a class action over the dioxin-contaminated herbicide are filing separate lawsuits. Some 12 million gallons of the defoliant were sprayed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1970. One of the important considerations raised at the ATLA seminars was that, because of rapid scientific advances in developing human epidemiological studies, more and more diseases are being tied to toxic materials.
The long latency periods for the discovery of cancer and other injuries can no longer be used as a basis for denying legal responsibility. In response to the atomic bomb testing of the 1940's, 2,400 people banded together and brought suit against the U.S. government. Those people had been exposed to the radioactive fallout in the 1940's, but the recognition and extent of their injuries had only recently been discovered. The Court permitted the case to proceed even though the statute of limitations had already lapsed. A statute of limitations sets the time period in which a claim remains valid; once the statute has run, the claim is barred. The court's decision had a great impact in this area in that it decided that the government could not escape liability by invoking a statute of limitations defense, but that the Court would look at the date at which time the injury was discovered.
There are now a number of experts available who have testified that the medical injuries caused by the dioxins were the result of the contamination by this chemical. Many people have different symptoms and susceptibility to these types of chemicals and pesticides, and the harm manifests itself in different ways. Testing done and reported in cases such as the Love Canal case in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Times Beach, Missouri case pinpoint the cause and effect and make more certain the responsibility for the dissemination of these dangerous substances.
The Environmental Protection Agency has cited 19 states where herbicide manufacturing processes created a high probability of dioxin contamination. What is interesting about these cases is that where the company knows, should have known, or conceals testing that shows a danger, and evidence indicates that there was a concealment or knowledge of the hazard, one can obtain punitive (punishment) damages that will penalize the company in favor of the plaintiff or people injured. These awards encompass injuries from people suffering from lung disease, cancer, and other side effects of dangerous toxic agents. One illustrative case is Atkins vs. Monsato Chemicals where 127 plaintiffs asked for damages amounting to over $700 million for the concealment of 2, 4, 5,-T hazards (deadly type toxin) from workers and the continued use of the unsafe products and manufacturing process for over two decades. There is evidence to show in those cases that punishment damages should be awarded.
At the trial, all one has to do is to show the jury that the product was dangerous, that it caused the injury, that the side effects from those exposed were concealed, and then allow a jury to contemplate its award of compensation and punishment. In a case I recently tried. (David L. Shumaker vs. Oliver B. Cannon & Sons, Inc.) decided by a Lake County jury in May of 1984, the jury awarded half a million dollars for lung damage and $250,000 for punishment damages for a carpenter in CEI's atomic reactor in Perry, Ohio, who was sprayed with a substance containing methylene chloride. The jury felt that the company should be punished for failing to exercise the appropriate level of care and as such awarded punitive damages.
Unfortunately, most lawyers overlook the probabilities of an action for personal injuries arising out of exposure to pollutants. Part of the reason for this is the fact that perhaps the area was not previously identified. Now the American Bar Association and the American Trial Lawyers Association have both set up sections on "toxic torts." With the increased amount of litigation to be set forth in the subsequent court cases and settlements, an awareness will generally permeate the trial bar, and more litigation will hopefully cause more polluters and companies manufacturing dangerous chemicals and drugs (because of the economic adversity resulting from the verdicts) to shape up their act. Only through such actions will we all be protected in some way against the further abuse of ourselves and our progeny.