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Challenges involving environmental damage lawsuits

Air Pollution caused by factories

Environmental damage lawsuits often arise due to a collective concern over the neglect or destruction of natural resources. However, regardless of the number of individuals or groups involved in bringing these said cases to court, there are certain legally sound requirements that make this endeavor challenging. 

Standing to sue: a popular defense vs. environmental lawsuits

One particularly difficult challenge in cases involving alleged desecration of the environment lies in proving plaintiffs’ standing to sue. This is a procedural requirement backed by the Constitution for any lawsuit to move forward. While this can be easily applied in most lawsuits, it becomes more complicated to apply in the issue of environmental damage.

A plaintiff’s standing to sue must be proven by a tangible injury to them as a result of the offense being brought to court. However, if the said offense is one that’s damaging to the environment, this may or may not cause concrete harm or injury to the plaintiffs or petitioners.

There are three elements to justify one’s standing to sue. This will be thoroughly discussed here in relation to the class action lawsuit on environmental damage. 

Proving injury to plaintiffs

In the 1970s, the Supreme Court held that without proof of injuries or economic harm to individuals, standing to sue may still be shown if plaintiffs can prove an injury-in-fact (e.g. loss of recreational use of water resources).

But it was in the 1990s when the Court further detailed the necessary elements of standing to sue. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) was a landmark case that explained the importance of demonstrating injury, causation, and redressability to show standing. Thus, a functional three-part test has been created to check the presence of these elements and is now being used in environmental cases.

The Lujan case was also instrumental in redefining injury-in-fact: that it must be concrete and imminent, not hypothetical or speculative in nature. 

Establishing causation

Plaintiffs also need to prove cause and effect between a defendant’s alleged actions and an injury. 

In Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services Inc. (2000), the Supreme Court acknowledged that Laidlaw’s discharge of pollutants in the North Tyger River prevented plaintiff residents from engaging in water-based recreational activities. The Court said that injury to the environment per se was not necessary. It was enough for the plaintiffs to establish an injury-in-fact directly caused by Laidlaw’s failure to comply with certain provisions in the Clean Water Act. 

On the other hand, cases like Kivalina v. ExxonMobil (2009) exhibit how causation should not be an indirect offshoot from a defendant’s alleged offenses. Here, the Ninth Circuit Court in California did not find substantial evidence that flooding caused by high greenhouse gas emissions can be traced directly to ExxonMobil’s oil drilling activities. 

The redressability element

Following the precedent of the Lujan case, a favorable court decision must be able to rectify or ameliorate an alleged injury to plaintiffs. This is the foundation of redressability.

In the case of Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), the state pushed to make the Environmental Protection Agency the main regulator of carbon dioxide emissions. Despite the EPA’s refusal to do so, citing policies in the Clean Air Act, the Court decided on siding with the petitioners. The Court also required the said federal agency to enforce regulatory powers and make decisions on whether these said emissions were threats to public health and welfare or not.

Furthermore, the Court noted that no government agency should refuse regulation of issues under its jurisdiction by citing policy preferences.

The promise of better insights

The above-mentioned cases are testaments to the fact that the level of negative impact of the alleged offense on a plaintiff could determine the outcome of an environmental damage lawsuit. 

Moreover, it can be difficult to prove direct harm to certain individuals as a result of climate change. Greenhouse gases are emitted globally and affect large swaths of the atmosphere — an area where many court jurisdictions don’t necessarily apply. 

But there is reason to be hopeful as climate science and litigation are both rapidly evolving fields. 

Scientists and climate lawyers are gradually getting better at quantifying the impact of climate change and tracing its contributors. This new information and insights can be used in future environmental damage legal procedures and help plaintiffs in effectively establishing standing to sue.  

Not just a global concern 

Environmental damage should not only be seen as a menace on the global level. It can also signal the presence of safety and health hazards in the workplace, whether it’s a factory or a corporate office.

If you have reason to believe an employer is neglecting the safety of workers, contact Hogue & Belong Attorneys at Law. They are seasoned class action attorneys in San Diego who can help you with your legal concerns in your workplace. Call them at 619.238.4720 or send an email to inquiries(at)hoguebelonglaw(dotted)com.