Since the start of the industrial revolution, economic growth has played second fiddle to the environment and companies routinely turn a blind eye to the damage they cause in the pursuit of profit.
Lawyers Work Hard to Expose the Negligence of Big Companies
Over the years, there have been several high-profile lawsuits linked to environmental disasters. Many involve toxic tort law class action lawsuits brought on behalf of entire communities, who would never have the means to fight back against huge companies if they were acting alone.
The following list covers some of the most scandalous environmental lawsuits of the past 30 years.
The PG&E Hinkley Lawsuit
The Erin Brockovich movie starring Julia Roberts brought this case into the public eye. It also won an Oscar. It all began when Pacific Gas & Electric dumped Chromium-6, a highly carcinogenic chemical used in the gas compressor station, into an unlined pond. It seeped out into the local water supply and the people of the nearby town of Hinkley began getting sick. The case was eventually settled for $330 million.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The Exxon Valdez oil disaster was one of the worst environmental disasters in history. In 1989, an oil tanker dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska. The cost to the local environment was staggering, with hundreds of thousands of animals and birds killed and 1,300 miles of coastline covered in oil. A class action lawsuit filed by 32,000 plaintiffs affected by the disaster was later awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, which was subsequently reduced to $507.5 million on appeal.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster
British Petroleum (BP) was hit for $20.8 billion after dumping oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was the largest settlement for pollution in history, after the court found the company had been grossly negligent. What’s worse is that lessons still hadn’t been learned following the Exxon Valdez disaster. The accident occurred after a drilling rig exploded, killing 11 crew and releasing 5 million barrels of oil. The damage was further compounded by the toxic chemicals used to solidify the oil. According to experts, the pollution was still ongoing five years later.
The Volkswagen Diesel Scandal
In 2015, it emerged that Volkswagen had been using software to cheat diesel emissions tests in the US. Affected vehicles were able to sense test scenarios under laboratory conditions and adjust emissions accordingly. While being driven normally, the vehicles emitted nitrogen dioxide 40x higher than permitted levels in the US. Millions of vehicles were recalled once the scandal broke and eventually, following a class action lawsuit, a £193 million settlement was reached. It wasn’t just the financial cost that hit the company where it hurt; the whole affair was a PR disaster and trust in the brand was severely damaged.
The Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill
Duke Energy pleaded guilty to criminal negligence and was fined $5 million after spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina after a drainage pipe collapsed. The ash contained toxic metals, including chromium, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and nickel. Unfortunately, this was only one of several spills and the company was eventually fined £102 million for multiple incidents.
Other notable lawsuits include Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency and Sierra Club v. Morton Case.