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Why Pollution Victims Need to be Able to File Class Action Lawsuits

Pro-business forces in Congress have proposed laws aimed at restricting, or even eliminating, the rights of injured Americans to join together in bringing their claims in the form of a single "class action" lawsuit. A class action is a kind of lawsuit in which those who have been injured by the same corporate conduct can bring their legal claims as part of a single case, rather than having to file dozens or hundreds or even thousands of essentially identical individual cases. Common example of a class action include:

  • When a corporation has misrepresented its financial health, causing investors to pay more for the corporation's stock than it is actually worth, only to learn later through an unexpected stock price drop that they had not been told the truth.
  • When a car company has sold automobiles with a common defect--say, a malfunctioning air bag-with the result that car purchasers did not get the car they paid for, and in fact unknowingly got a dangerous car.

In my 17+ years representing families victimized by corporate pollution--contaminating their air or water supply--I and my partners have frequently used class actions to seek justice for our clients. In a typical case, a company dumped a dangerous chemical onto the ground years ago, and allowed it to bleed down through the soil, and into the groundwater that flows underneath our clients' homes, and is used to supply water to those homes. So, as a result of the company's behavior, each of perhaps 100 (or more) families now has a contaminated water supply. Each family needs a new water supply--one not threatened by the dangerous chemicals--and compensation for the loss in property value suffered because of the contamination.

So, each of the 100 families is the victim of the same common corporate misconduct, i.e., dumping dangerous chemicals, not cleaning them up, and allowing them to infiltrate a neighborhood water supply. Likewise, each family seeks the same type of relief (a new water supply and lost property value compensation), and has the same lawyers and scientific experts to prove its case.

These 100 families have so much in common regarding the corporate conduct that injured them, the relief that they seek and how they plan to seek it, that it only makes sense that they do it in one case, rather than 100. The point of a class action is to achieve justice through efficiency: the resources of the judicial system and the parties should not be wasted in answering 100 different times the same questions that are common to all such as:

  • Was it wrong for the company to dump the chemicals and leave them there?
  • Did the dumped chemicals migrate into the 100 families' water supply?
  • Do the families need a new water supply?
  • Did they suffer a loss in the value of their properties?

So, why are the pro-business forces in Congress trying to pass a law that would forbid these families from proceeding together as a "class" in a single case, and instead force them to "go it alone", in 100 identical, but separate, cases? Does the corporate polluter really want to pay to litigate 100 separate cases, when litigating a single case will get everyone--including the company--the answers they need to the important questions?

Here's what these corporate polluters know that makes them lobby Congress so hard to forbid class actions: if there is no class action, the company will probably never get sued at all. There will never be 100 individual cases, or even one individual-family case. Why? Because they are too expensive for the great majority of families to be able to afford on their own.

It's simple economics.

Take a typical example: the combined costs for that one family to prove the company's unlawful chemical dumping, its contamination of a water supply, and the resulting injury might approach $500,000--given the many years of company behavior often involved; the dozens of witnesses to be found and interviewed; the hundreds of thousands of documents that must be discovered and reviewed; and the often complex science that must be understood and communicated by experts to layperson judges and jurors. And this would be in a case where, if the family was awarded everything it asked for, it might receive $100,000. Now, almost no family has $500,000 laying around to finance a lawsuit, let alone one where the family could only receive $100,000 in compensation.

This is what those fighting to eliminate class actions know, and why they are trying to leave these families no legal choice but to "go it alone".

The virtue of a class action is that all of that same cost can be used to benefit all of the families with a contaminated water supply. The costs would have to be paid only once to prove that the company unlawfully dumped chemicals, causing the neighborhood's water supply to become contaminated. This single cost can then be divided among all 100 families. So, each family would pay 1%, rather than 100%, of that cost. That makes seeking justice for these families affordable. Really, that makes seeking justice for these families possible.

No class actions for pollution victims means no justice for pollution victims........and no accountability for polluters.

No one but polluters could possibly want that. 

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