What is an Environmental Law Lawsuit?
An environmental lawsuit is a legal action taken against an individual, a group, a company, or a government agency because of their actions that violate environmental laws. Individuals may sue a company, for instance, if it violated the Clean Air Act, polluting the air to an unacceptable degree and causing harm to people. Plaintiffs may also take on government groups or agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, for failing to follow up with violations or enforce laws.
Who Can File an Environmental Law Lawsuit?
In order to file a lawsuit to protect the environment or recover damages, you must show standing. This means you must prove you are the appropriate person to bring the case. In most civil lawsuits, this means showing you suffered economic harm or non-economic damages, for instance, medical bills and pain and suffering after a car accident.
Standing in environmental lawsuits can be tricky. It’s difficult to show, for instance, that pollution of a local river has caused one individual specific harm. A Supreme Court decision outlined three factors necessary to prove standing in an environmental case:
- Injury-in-Fact. You must show concrete, particular, and actual harm, not hypothetical harm. It must affect you in a personal way. For instance, if pollution of a local river prevents you from using it for recreation, this could be considered injury-in-fact.
- Causal Connection. You have to prove that the injury-in-fact is connected to the defendant’s action, for instance, a company dumping chemicals resulting in the pollution of the river.
- Redress. Finally, you must show that a successful legal challenge will most likely redress the injury resulting from the defendant’s actions. If the company can be stopped from polluting the river and forced to clean it up, your injuries will be redressed in you win the case.
The standing requirements are strict enough to limit who can file a lawsuit, but if you can meet these three factors, you can take legal action. An experienced environmental lawyer can help you determine your chances of meeting standing.
Who Can You Sue in an Environmental Law Lawsuit?
The defendants in a lawsuit depend on the situation and the laws violated. Some examples of who you may sue for damages over environmental issues include:
- Local, state, or federal government agencies
- Businesses and companies that pollute or otherwise violate environmental laws
- A landlord responsible for environmental safety issues in your rental property
- An architect, engineer, or contractor that exposed you to harmful substances in your home
If your employer is responsible for environmental harm, you may be able to sue, but you may also have to go through a separate process. For instance, if you are suffering because of indoor air quality, you likely must go through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or file for workers’ compensation benefits if you have resulting health problems. A lawyer can help you figure out if suing your employer is possible or appropriate.
Examples of Environmental Lawsuits
Environmental lawsuits can be high-profile cases that make the news, but they are also smaller cases brought by individuals in their communities. These are some examples of noteworthy environmental lawsuits:
- UCLA v. Department of Homeland Security. Environmental groups brought a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in October 2020 over the use of tear gas in Portland, Oregon. The plaintiffs allege that the government violated environmental laws by using excessive amounts of harmful chemical weapons against protesters and that it failed to assess the environmental impacts.
- Massachusetts v. EPA. In 2007, 12 states sued the Environmental Protection Agency over carbon dioxide regulation. They alleged the EPA should be regulating carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global climate change, under the Clean Air Act.
- Juliana v. United States. A group of young people filed a lawsuit against the U.S. in 2015, alleging that the government’s actions in promoting climate change violate their constitutional rights. The case is now pending in the Court of Appeals.
- Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric. This case was made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich. She investigated pollution of drinking water with hexavalent chromium and helped residents of the town of Hinkley bring a class action lawsuit against PG and E. They won damages in the form of $333 million for the harm caused, including elevated cancer rates.
Is There a Time Limit on Filing an Environmental Lawsuit?
Because there are so many different laws in varying jurisdictions that regulate environmental offenses, this isn’t easy to answer. You need to know which laws apply and in which jurisdiction to determine the statute of limitations. An experienced environmental lawyer can help you with this.
How to Start an Environmental Law Lawsuit
The most important thing to do if you believe you have a valid lawsuit regarding environmental issues is to contact a lawyer. Find a lawyer or a firm that specializes in this complicated area of the law, and that has handled similar cases.
Once you have the right lawyer on your side, they will do the leg work of starting and following through with a lawsuit. This includes filing a complaint, investigating the incident or violations, working with experts and witnesses, and litigating in court if necessary. If they can negotiate a settlement out of court, they will help you recover damages in less time than a trial would take. This isn’t always possible.
If you think you have a case for an environmental law lawsuit, contact a lawyer or firm with experience in these types of cases. You need these experts to clarify your rights, determine your case’s strength, and proceed with legal action.