What Is a Toxic Tort?
Media reports frequently describe lawsuits involving individuals who have become sick due to exposure to harmful chemicals such as asbestos, pesticides, and solvents. These types of cases are sometimes called “toxic torts.”
A toxic tort is simply a case in which a plaintiff seeks to recover damages for injuries caused by exposure to a toxic substance. The case is brought using legal theories that are available in other lawsuits, such as negligence (where a defendant has caused harm by acting carelessly), strict liability (where a defendant is responsible for harm caused by an activity regardless of intent, usually because the activity is unusually dangerous), or breach of warranty (where a defendant is liable for harm caused by a product that fails to meet an agreed standard). However, toxic torts also have characteristics that set them apart somewhat from other types of cases.
For instance, while a plaintiff must always prove that a defendant is legally responsible for conduct that causes harm, in toxic tort cases, this proof usually takes the form of showing that a defendant knew or should have known that an activity – often making or selling a chemical product – was dangerous. In some cases, it becomes clear that companies not only were aware that their products were hazardous but had that knowledge for some time and continued to manufacture or sell those products, sometimes even taking steps to conceal the danger.
An example with which many people are familiar is asbestos. Over decades of litigation and countless courtroom battles, the public learned that while medical literature had identified pulmonary diseases associated with asbestos exposure by the early 1900s and that manufacturers of asbestos-containing products were aware of the danger, those manufacturers actively concealed their knowledge, allowing thousands upon thousands of workers using their products to be exposed to life-threatening risk.
Much of the same scientific literature used to prove that an industry as a whole was aware of a product’s dangers also illustrates another necessary part of a toxic tort case – that exposure to the chemical, in fact, caused harm. Causation is an essential element of any tort case, but in a toxic tort, it involves complex medical issues that require evidence presented by expert witnesses. These experts, who can include occupational physicians, epidemiologists, toxicologists, industrial hygienists, and other professionals, must determine that an individual’s chemical exposures contributed to his or her medical condition.
Toxic torts can involve significant injuries and serious diseases, some of which can even be life-threatening. When someone goes through such a physically and emotionally difficult experience, a lawyer experienced in handling cases like these can help that person understand his or her legal rights and determine the best course of action.