Toxic Tort

According to law, a toxic tort is a personal injury resulting from exposure to a toxic substance. If you or a loved one has suffered injury or illness from harmful substances, someone could be to blame. Legal action can help you recover damages.

What is a Toxic Tort?

A tort is an omission or an act that leads to a personal injury. The person committing the tort is negligent. For example, a driver going through a red light causes an accident that results in a passenger’s injury. The driver could be found negligent in that injury, and the passenger could sue them for damages.

Tort law governs all types of personal injuries, from dog bites to car accidents and toxic substances. Toxic torts are acts or omissions that lead to an individual being exposed to and harmed by a toxic substance.[1]

An example of a toxic tort in the news recently is the settlement Bayer agreed to pay to victims of their herbicide Roundup. Thousands of people developed cancer from using the toxic product, originally made by Monsanto. Bayer settled for more than $10 billion in the toxic tort case, one of the biggest payouts in the history of civil lawsuits in the U.S.[2]

Types of Toxic Torts

A toxic tort lawsuit can involve any substance that is toxic to humans and that causes illness or injury, resulting in significant damages. Some examples of toxic substances known to be harmful and that have been the subject of lawsuits include:

  • Lead-based paints
  • Asbestos
  • Solvents, such as those used in dry cleaning
  • Toxic waste at landfills
  • Pesticides, like DDT and dioxin
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Pharmaceuticals

Where Does Toxic Exposure Occur?

Exposure to a toxin can happen anywhere and to anyone. Some people in certain situations are more vulnerable. Toxic tort injuries generally fall into one of four categories:

  1. Consumer products. Roundup is an example of a consumer product not intended to cause harm but that caused thousands of people to develop cancer. These cases may be both personal injury and products liability lawsuits.
  2. Home exposure. Consumer products may overlap with exposure in the home. Home exposure may also include chemicals from building materials and toxic mold.
  3. Occupational exposure. Many workers are at risk of exposure to toxic substances, especially those in industrial jobs, like manufacturing, chemical production, and mining.
  4. Pharmaceuticals. A drug that causes unintended side effects, those the company did not warn consumers about, can be considered a toxic substance and be part of a toxic tort action.

Depending on where and how exposure occurred, several types of law may apply to the situation: tort and toxic tort, employment and workers’ compensation, and products liability.

How Do I Know I Was Exposed to Toxic Substances?

Exposure is obvious in some cases. A chemical spill at work, for instance, is a clear case of exposure, whether you have symptoms or not. If you find a large patch of mold in your home, you can assume exposure.

It’s not always so straightforward, though, which is why toxic tort cases can be difficult and complicated. If you have unexplained symptoms, see your doctor. Consider all areas of your life where exposure could occur. A lawyer experienced in toxic tort cases, and your doctor, can help you put the puzzle together and determine if, and how, you experienced a toxic exposure.

Symptoms of chemical or other toxic substance exposure vary by type. But there are some more common signs you should be aware of if you suspect you have been around toxic materials:[3]

  • Skin symptoms, including a rash, redness, dryness, white areas, swelling, or blistering
  • A chemical taste in the mouth
  • Burning and watering eyes
  • A burning sensation in the nose and mouth
  • Coughing, shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

Some exposures, like asbestos, cause long-term, chronic problems. Low levels of exposure for a long period of time, such as to mold in the home, can cause ongoing symptoms. These may include wheezing or worsening of asthma, coughing, congestion, itchy, watery eyes, fatigue, and flu- or cold-like symptoms that persist.

What if I Was Exposed to a Toxic Chemical Years Ago?

Many people experienced exposure years before any health symptoms became obvious. Asbestos is a good example of this. Many materials contained this harmful mineral decades ago, including those used in construction, manufacturing, automotive industries, shipbuilding, and more.

Some workers exposed to asbestos developed a rare cancer called mesothelioma decades later.[4] Tracing illness and symptoms back to decades-old exposure can be tricky, but it is possible. Also, statutes of limitations generally have a discovery rule. This means the time limit doesn’t begin until you reasonably discovered the illness caused by exposure. Talk to a lawyer about your options, even if you suspect exposure happened a long time ago.

What to Do After Exposure to a Toxic Substance

The most important and immediate thing to do if you know you have been exposed is to get medical attention. If a substance got into your eyes or on your skin, rinse them immediately and call for emergency help.

Keep a record of all your medical care, symptoms, and bills. Document the incident and all details related to the exposure. If it happened at work, file an incident report and talk to your supervisor as soon as possible.

Finally, talk to a lawyer. An attorney or law firm experienced in toxic tort can evaluate your case and advise you on taking legal action. Whether the exposure occurred at work or somewhere else, the consequences can be serious. You need legal guidance to recover damages and hold accountable those people who caused or failed to prevent exposure.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Toxic Tort.
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  2. Cohen, P. (2020, June 24). Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits. The New York Times.
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  3. Boston University. (n.d.). Signs and Symptoms of Chemical Exposure.
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  4. Reid, A., de Klerk, N.H., Magnani, C., Ferrante, D., Berry, G., Musk, A.W., and Merler, E. (2014). Mesothelioma Risk after 40 Years Since First Exposure to Asbestos: A Pooled Analysis. Thorax. 69(9), 843-50.
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