Filing an Environmental Lawsuit

The first step in deciding to file an environmental lawsuit is to determine whether you were exposed to an environmental hazard. Hazards are any toxins found in the environment that make you sick.


Hazards can take a number of forms:

  • Toxic waste (Medical waste, chemical waste, radioactive waste and mineral waste)
  • Contaminated Water (Pollutants that are dumped into water or that find their way into water as a result of storm run-off)
  • Polluted Air (Asbestos fibers, or other airborne toxins)
  • Environmental hazards (Lead paint, toxic mold, formaldehyde treated carpeting, or other items that have the potential to make you sick)
  • Unsafe drugs (Drugs that cause side effects or that turn out not to be safe)

Sometimes, identifying a hazard can be easy. For example, you may find out your home is built on a toxic waste dump, like Niagara Falls Citizens in Love Canal discovered.  Sometimes, it can be more difficult to prove.

Usually, if an entity does something that violates Environmental Protection Laws- like dumps pollution into the water - you can use that information to prove you were exposed to a hazard.

Filing a Lawsuit

The type of environmental lawsuit you file depends on what your outcome is. If you just want the polluters to be forced to clean up the mess they made, you can bring the case to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, who can then take administrative action against the offender. If you choose this course of action, the EPA will usually investigate to determine if there is contamination. 

You can also hire a lawyer and bring a “citizen suit” in court that requests the court make the polluter clean up the contamination. You can do this on behalf of the government, if the EPA has already identified contamination. You can also do this if the government hasn’t shown that a hazard exists, but you will be responsible for investigating and proving the hazard.

If you want to recover monetary damages for harm caused to you by exposure to an environmental hazard, or for damage caused to your property by pollution, you will need to file a standard civil suit in a court of law. This is just like any other personal injury or tort case- you need to get a lawyer, who can help you prove your case in court. Proving your case involves proving that you were exposed to a hazard, and that the hazard caused you harm.

Sometimes joining a class action lawsuit is a shortcut to proving you were harmed. Once you prove you were exposed and should be in the class, the class takes over the responsibility of proving that the company did something wrong. 

If you don’t want to join a class action, or if there is no class action to join, then you need to be able to prove “causation.” This means you need to be able to prove that the exposure hurt you. You can do this by proving that the hazard is known to cause a certain illness; for example, asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma or asbestos. You can also collect evidence to show that others who were exposed also got sick. If you have been exposed to asbestos, read more on how to go about Filing a Lawsuit for Mesothelioma.

Recovering from Damages

Often, companies will offer to settle environmental lawsuits. This means they offer you a sum of money to not bring the case to court. If you are bringing the lawsuit yourself, you need to decide if this amount of money is enough. Once you settle, you give up your right to sue.

If you don't settle, the case will go to court. If you prove your case in court, the jury will decide how much the company has to pay. If you are part of a class action, you usually won’t get to decide whether to accept the settlement or not, you will be bound by the decision of the class.

The recovery you will get after a suit depends on the type of lawsuit. If you brought a citizen suit to get the polluters to clean up, you usually won’t get any money, and the only outcome of the lawsuit will be that the defendant has to clean up the pollution.  If you brought a personal injury lawsuit or a lawsuit for damage to your property, you will be compensated for your damages when the defendant is found guilty. Amount of compensation varies. If property was destroyed, you will be paid for the destruction. If you became ill, you will be awarded a sum of money that is meant to compensate you for your illness.  In some cases, punitive damages may also be awarded. This means you will get extra money, that the company has to pay, in order to punish the company for very negligent or reckless behavior.

Getting Legal Help

Deciding whether you have enough evidence to file an environmental lawsuit can be complex. You should consult with an experienced environmental attorney who can help you determine your best course of action.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. If you need legal advice or representation,
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