Executive Summary

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For generations, our government has been involved in controlling pollution.  However, political forces can undermine the effectiveness of these laws or impair the regulatory system.  That is why we need the vital protection provided by our civil justice system, according to How the Civil Justice System Protects Environmental Health.

The report examines a variety of issues, including why everyone should have the right to take action in court when their own health and the welfare of their own communities are at stake, and polluters should be held accountable for the harm they cause to ordinary people.  It also addresses how minority communities disproportionately shoulder environmental burdens and often have very few remedies so laws that limit access to mass torts or class actions remedies erect yet another unfair barrier for these communities in their effort to achieve environmental justice.  And environmental lawsuits can play a critical role in preventing global warming, especially when government fails to help remedy this global crisis.

More specifically, while environmental laws passed by legislatures can help control or stop pollution problems,

  • Most of these laws do not provide a way for people to be compensated when they are harmed by pollution.
  • Standards are often not strict enough to prevent harm, and fines imposed for violations of laws in many instances are simply not high enough to force a company to stop harmful but financially lucrative conduct.
  • Political forces have undermined the effectiveness of many laws or have impaired the entire regulatory system.

Citizens need the right to take direct action in court when their own health and the welfare of their own communities are at stake.  Lawsuits by those who have suffered harm from pollution allow the injured person to:

  • Confront the polluter in court and hold them directly accountable.
  • Demand documents from the polluter, in a legal process called “discovery.”
  • Obtain compensation for health impacts and property damage from pollution.
  • Deter future egregious conduct.

Some famous cases have involved tort actions against polluters, including

  • Love Canal 
  • PG&E (“the Erin Brockovich case”)
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
  • The Woburn Case (portrayed in the film, A Civil Action)

Certain corporations have lobbied government to limit or deny the right of ordinary people to take court action, and some rights under the civil justice system have already been impaired.  This includes in the important areas of mass torts and class actions, which allows many cases to be joined together.  Polluters benefit when government restricts the ability of injured people to bring actions in court.

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