Recent years have seen a flood of lawsuits by climate change activists targeting governments, corporations, and federal agencies. Many of the plaintiffs are younger, between the ages of 5 and 25 in some cases, and their main argument is that lack of action or, worse, destructive actions are threatening their right to life, health, and future property.
And they might have a case. A recent lawsuit in Alaska featured a lead client whose hometown was literally wiped off the map, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland sued oil-giant Chevron for being a public nuisance (Chevron owns an oil refinery just Northeast of the cities), and the UN removed Exxon Mobile’s lobbying power due to the undeniable effects of of the fossil fuel industry on the climate. Given the sheer number of cases, let’s take a look at the effects of climate change, and how a plaintiff could use them in a personal injury case.
A product liability case could actually be a viable way to take on large, polluting industries. For a claim to be brought forward, at least one of three premises must be present:
- Defective Design
- Defective Manufacturing
- Defective Marketing
As we can all remember from the recent Volkswagen scandal, defective products can have a significant impact on the lives of an entire population, not just the user. Since the VW cars were designed with higher than acceptable pollution levels, cheated tests during manufacturing, and were marketed as “clean diesel cars,” this one has all three product liability premises clearly present. What makes things more complicated is when cars do meet the emissions standards, but it is known that all cars pollute. Does a design that inherently advances climate change count as defective? What about manufacturing practices that are up to code but use products that aren’t from sustainable sources? Designs for more fuel-efficient cars exist, so wouldn’t the production of a car not utilizing the more efficient technology count as defective?
There are obviously gray areas and complicated matters here, but a product is being made and sold with the scientific knowledge available that the product is helping to cause health issues in children and adults alike.
Injuries to Children
According to a release from the EPA, children are more vulnerable to the environmental damages done by greenhouse gas emissions. Children living in highly polluted areas are more prone to lung disease, asthma, and water- and food-borne illnesses. Beyond the direct health impacts are the wider climate impacts such as increased weather volatility, resulting in extreme heat, wildfires, extreme storms, and flooding, all of which pose great risks to the safety of children. If an industry can be pinned down for their contributions to climate change, either local or global, they may be liable in a child injury case.
While it may not be the same case as if a child got hurt while swimming in a pool with a negligent lifeguard, children are getting injured as a direct result of negligent companies. There is scientific evidence of the damages involved in running a high-polluting manufacturing plant, but many cities are home to such plants.
This could be considered the fault of the city but is more accurately the fault of the plant owner. While cities have the ability to deny companies the right to manufacture within their limits, this generally just relocates the project to a city with less political sway, leading to what is known as environmental racism. No matter who specifically ends up being charged, children are being hurt.
Similar to child injuries, a wrongful death case against a corporation or industry would be related to the health implications of the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This can include lung disease, asthma, or, like a case coming out of Peru, death from rapid environmental change. Saúl Luciano Lliuya is currently suing GWE, the German energy producers, for the effect their industry is having on global temperatures that could cause the glaciers above Lliuya’s village to melt, destroying his town. German courts are currently looking into his case and believe it to be valid.
If someone dies unexpectedly due to climate change-induced events, their family might be able to go after those who have been contributing to its advancement.
A serious injury case could follow similar beats to the wrongful death case, but with less death. Serious injury could cover damages from particulate matter in the air causing illness, or damages from natural disasters that were caused by climate change. An individual, or group of individuals, with pollution caused illness they got from working with pollutants in a manufacturing plant could file for damages from toxic substances.
Denial of Civil Rights
Everyone has the basic right to life and health, according to the 3rd and 25th articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If an industry is infringing upon that right of those who will grow up in a world that is becoming more dangerous and unhealthy due to climate change, they may be denying the civil rights of those people.
Mass Tort or Class Action Lawsuit
It’s unlikely that any one individual case is going to make a global impact, which is why it’s important to look at the value of massive lawsuits, made up of thousands of plaintiffs. Whether its a mass tort or class action lawsuit, we’re likely to see at least one groundbreaking case soon.
These examples are interpretations of how certain cases could fit into a personal injury mold: a simple thought exercise. That being said, more and more people are experiencing injuries due to climate change, and there are clear industries responsible. Maybe personal injury claims aren’t too far off after all.