Be it against a product manufacturer, a doctor, or the Federal government itself, the US federal courts handle thousands of civil caseloads every year. These lawsuits can take the form of mass torts, multidistrict litigation, class action, or contract disputes.
Among the wide number of civil lawsuits filed each year, not many generate uproar loud enough to stir the US government out of its slumber. However, a few end up driving a drastic change in law and policies.
This article will discuss three such civil lawsuits (currently active) that have hitherto changed the course of US history.
Firefighting Foam Lawsuit
Ever since its production in the early 1950s, Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) has been used to put out Class B fires. This foam primarily consists of a group of complex chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.
For decades, firefighters and military servicemen were exposed to these toxic chemicals. Even so, the health risks surrounding PFAS came to the surface. These chemicals are considered to be human carcinogenic, with health risks ranging from fertility issues to cancers of the testicles, bladder, and liver.
Around 2017, the first wave of firefighting foam lawsuits was filed against the product’s manufacturers. The multinational conglomerate 3M was the primary defendant, alleged to have known the health dangers for decades. Most plaintiffs had developed life-threatening conditions, particularly cancer.
Besides human health risks, PFAS also contaminates the environment. They are called the ‘forever chemicals’ as they can stay in the soil or the human body indefinitely. While firefighters filed personal injury lawsuits, municipalities filed water contamination cases under the AFFF litigation.
As of today, 3M has resolved water contamination cases with $10.3 billion. The personal injury cases are expected to be resolved soon. The company has also announced that all PFAS production will stop by the end of 2025.
Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit
The Camp Lejeune lawsuit came into being after the Biden administration passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) in August 2022. This litigation aims to provide compensation for the one million victims of Camp Lejeune’s toxic waters.
For nearly three decades (1953 – 1987), residents at the Camp consumed water laden with harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Of these compounds, the chief chemical at the helm of this disaster was trichloroethylene or TCE. Gradually, cases of cancer, female infertility, renal toxicity, Parkinson’s disease, etc., came forward.
Victims were given free healthcare under the Obama administration, but legal justice only recently became possible. As per TorHoerman Law, this litigation is in its developmental stages, where the most severe cases will be settled first. To date, around 117,000 administrative claims have been filed.
However, it is expected that the numbers will increase since the statute of limitations is open till August 2024. The Department of Justice (DOJ) expects to set aside $3.3 trillion to compensate all victims. As of now, this civil litigation is written in US history as the largest mass tort.
Also, it led to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposing a complete ban on TCE. This means the chemicals widely used in paint removers, degreasing solvents, refrigerants, carpet cleaners, etc., will no longer be produced.
The Roundup glyphosate-based herbicide became commercially available in 1974. Sold in the form of a liquid concentrate, it was widely used to control the growth of weeds.
Roundup successfully became the most popular herbicide sold across the US. By its very nature, it was a non-selective herbicide, which meant it would kill even healthy weeds.
This was bad enough, but what was worse was the health repercussions of the herbicide. For decades, no action was taken against the manufacturer Monsanto (now Bayer). It is believed that the public was unaware that the weed killer’s glyphosate was the problem.
However, Dewayne Lee Johnson, a farmer based in California, filed the first-ever lawsuit against the agrochemical giant in 2016. Johnson’s case was the first to go to trial in 2018, for which he received a historic $289 million in settlements. It was confirmed that Roundup exposure led to cancer, especially non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (the injury Johnson suffered from).
As of today, Bayer has closed over 100,000 lawsuits with a whopping $11 billion. Even so, 30,000 lawsuits are awaiting payouts. After being exposed, Bayer had to take down Roundup from the retail shelves for residential use. The herbicide is still available for commercial farmers.
As we discussed, two civil lawsuits involved product manufacturing juggernauts, whereas one involved the Federal government itself. As a result of these litigations, the affected industries (in all three cases) must look for alternatives.
For instance – the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) states that TCE alternatives in paints would include powder coating. Likewise, fluorine-free alternatives for Class B firefighting foam are available (albeit in their nascent stages). As for Roundup pesticide, natural ingredients like vinegar and salt-based sprays, as well as mulching, are safer substitutes.