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What is a Toxic Tort?

By Mona D. Rigdon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A tort is a lawsuit that claims a wrongful act caused harm to an individual, and a toxic tort is a personal injury lawsuit that involves a plaintiff that claims that exposure to a chemical or device caused an injury or disease. There are several types of these cases. Pharmaceutical toxic torts are brought against manufacturers, distributors and prescribers of medications. Occupational toxic torts arise from exposure to a chemical or device that caused injury or illness, and real property toxic torts involve land or real property damaged by exposure to toxic chemicals. There are other types of toxic torts as well.

The many advances in medication development and pharmaceutical science have led to the instance of many pharmaceutical toxic tort cases within the legal system. Often, exposure to a toxic chemical or combination of chemicals does not become evident until many years after exposure took place, so testing and regulation processes are not foolproof. Many drugs that seem safe throughout the testing process are found later to cause serious and sometimes deadly side effects. Cancer, heart or kidney failure, neurological problems, skin disorders and death are some of the possible but less common side effects of many medications. When these side effects are unknown or not properly warned against, manufacturers and others become open to legal action by those who are harmed by the drug.

These lawsuits can be very expensive for pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals, even when they are not found liable. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, many toxic tort lawsuits were filed against the manufacturer of the drug Bendectin. The drug was prescribed to treat morning sickness in pregnant women but was alleged by many to cause birth defects. Evidence produced by the manufacturer in this case convinced the court that the drug did was not the cause of the birth defects. The manufacturer no longer produces the medication, citing the high costs of its defense counsel in repetitious lawsuits.

In other cases where a drug company is found liable for damages that arose from taking its medication, victims and their families often feel that money can not make up for the injury, illness or loss that they have suffered. For example, in the Vioxx® case, a multimillion-dollar verdict was awarded to the widow of a man who died from taking the medication. Loss of income from his job and loss of companionship were among the harms alleged and awarded. Vioxx® is prescribed for inflammation, pain and menstrual cramps, but common side effects include diarrhea, nausea and heartburn. The medication also was linked to increased risk of stroke, cardiac death and heart attack.

Occupational toxic torts arise from exposure to dangers on the job that are linked to a party other than the employer. For example, asbestos injury usually is alleged against the manufacturer of the asbestos-containing product. Asbestos is one of the few toxic tort cases in which the cause of the harm is difficult to dispute. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are traceable directly to asbestos exposure, making these lawsuits much less convoluted than other toxic torts.

Real property toxic torts arise from damage done to real property through exposure to a toxic chemical or process. Groundwater contamination, soil contamination, waterway contamination and other damages can result from improper use or storage of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, garbage, nuclear matter or other materials. Contaminated groundwater can lead to contaminated soil and drinking water. The film "Erin Brokovich" made this true-life scenario familiar to many people. Exposure to carcinogens in ground water and drinking water led to a higher-than-normal incidence of cancer in a small rural town, and the small law firm and paralegal that successfully spear-headed the litigation against the large corporation Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) became the stuff of legend and brought toxic torts into the public eye.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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