Environmental law cases are important for both the litigants and the public at large. It is expensive to defend an environmental case and it can be even more expensive to lose an environmental case. Thus, high verdicts and settlements send a message to other businesses to be careful in the way that they conduct business so as to avoid environmental catastrophes and the resulting litigation.
Over the past few decades, three environmental law cases stand out as being especially important to the American public and American businesses:
The Woburn Water Case: John Travolta’s 1999 movie, A Civil Action was based on the true story of 8 Woburn, Massachusetts families who were seriously hurt by water contaminated by the W.R. Grace Co. In 1982, eight families from Woburn, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against W.R. Grace Co, Unifirst Corporation and Beatrice Foods. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants contaminated the municipal water supply with toxins and that significant medical problems resulted. Children in 7 of the 8 plaintiff families contracted leukemia and 5 of them died. A spouse of the remaining plaintiff also died from leukemia. Unifirst settled with the plaintiffs for just over a million dollars, Beatrice foods was not found liable for the contamination and W.R. Grace was found liable for the jury. However, W.R. Grace settled with the plaintiffs for $8 million before the ruling was made official. This landmark case and the accompanying motion picture and media attention led businesses across the country to take the issue of groundwater contamination seriously because they knew that they could be held liable for the consequences of their pollution.
The Erin Brockovich Pacific Gas & Electric Case: In 2000, Julia Roberts starred in a movie by the name of Erin Brockovich. The movie told the true story of Erin Brockovich, a legal assistant in a San Fernando Valley, California law firm. As a legal assistant, Erin was researching a pro bono legal case against Pacific Gas & Electric. In her research, Erin found that Pacific Gas & Electric had been poisoning the town of Hinkley, California’s water supply for 30 years. As a result of Erin’s work, Pacific Gas & Electric was forced to pay the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. history. The utility company settled with Hinkley residents for $333 million in 1996.
The Exxon Valdez Case: While the final of our top three infamous environmental law cases has not yet made it to the big screen, it is a significant case with lasting effects on U.S. law. The Exxon Valdez case stems from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. Litigation over this epic spill that dumped about 11 million gallons of oil into the water and devastated fishing communities, took almost 20 years to resolve. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case in 2008 and found that Exxon had to pay punitive damages for the environmental catastrophe but decreased the lower court’s $2.5 billion award by $500 million.
Who will be the defendant in the next infamous environmental case? It is difficult to predict but one company to watch will be BP over the Deepwater Horizon Gulf catastrophe of April 2010. Regardless of the defendant’s identity, it is fair to say that additional important environmental law cases will be brought in the years to come.
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