Toxic Torts FAQ

Updated by , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 10/14/2020

What is a toxic tort?

A toxic tort is a legal claim for harm caused by exposure to a dangerous substance —such as a pharmaceutical drug, pesticide, or chemical. Most toxic tort injuries arise in one of the following ways:

  • occupational exposure: when industrial workers are exposed to toxins on the job (examples include asbestos, benzene, beryllium, and silica)
  • pharmaceutical drugs: when prescribed drugs cause unintended side effects (learn more about product liability claims involving pharmaceutical drugs)
  • exposure in the home: when people breathe or ingest harmful substances in their home, such as toxic mold, and
  • consumer products: when people use products that cause unintended injuries or illnesses (including Roundup/glyphosate and other chemical-based products).

Learn more about the basics in our toxic torts overview.

How can I prove fault in a toxic tort case?

Plaintiffs in toxic tort lawsuits can use a number of legal theories to try to establish liability and receive compensation for their injuries. Some common claims in toxic tort cases include:

  • Negligence. The plaintiff in a negligence claim must prove that 1) the defendant (perhaps a construction business owner whose employees worked with asbestos) had an obligation to use ordinary care toward the plaintiff or the general public, 2) the defendant's action or failure to act did not meet this duty (for example, the owner failed to provide workers with safety equipment to prevent inhalation of asbestos), and 3) the victim or the general public was injured as a result.
  • Product liability. When a product turns out to be defective or unreasonably dangerous, or when the manufacturer fails to warn consumers of health and safety risks related to the product, the company can be liable for any resulting harm to consumers under a product liability theory. An example of this kind of "toxic tort" case is the recent wave of Roundup-cancer lawsuits.
  • Strict liability for ultrahazardous activity. In other toxic tort cases, certain behavior is deemed so dangerous that anyone engaging in it will be held legally responsible (strictly liable) for any damages that result (transporting dangerous chemicals could be one example). Toxic tort victims in these cases don't have to show that the defendant acted carelessly.
  • Intentional misrepresentation or fraud. If a defendant knew that a substance was dangerous, but deliberately concealed the danger or marketed the product in a misleading way, a toxic tort plaintiff may have a claim for intentional misrepresentation or fraud.

Learn more about legal theories of liability in toxic tort cases.

Who can toxic tort victims sue for injuries and health problems?

Figuring out who is responsible for a toxic tort victim's exposure to a dangerous substance can be difficult. Plaintiffs generally sue anybody that had a link to the toxin—including the manufacturer of the toxin, the manufacturer of machinery that exposes workers to toxins, the owner or lessor of a building or site that contains or emits a toxin, companies that store toxins, and manufacturers of safety equipment intended to protect employees from toxins. To learn more about possible defendants in a toxic tort lawsuit, see our toxic torts overview.

I recently became seriously ill from a dangerous chemical, but my exposure occurred years ago. Is it too late to sue?

An injured plaintiff must bring a lawsuit within a certain period of time after harm occurred—under laws called statutes of limitations. In toxic tort cases, many plaintiffs don't discover their injuries until many years after the harm occurred, because symptoms often take years to show up. Luckily, most courts follow the "discovery rule," which means the clock doesn't start ticking on the statute of limitations time period until the plaintiff actually discovers the harm (or when the circumstances are such that the plaintiff reasonably should have discovered it). If you just recently became ill from your exposure to a dangerous chemical, meaning you just discovered that the chemical harmed you, it is probably not too late to sue. Contact a lawyer immediately. Learn more about the statute of limitations and other common defenses to toxic tort cases.

I was exposed to asbestos on the job several decades ago and now have mesothelioma. Can I get compensated for my illness?

Probably. Mesothelioma, an often fatal lung disease, is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Lawsuits have established that the asbestos industry hid the health dangers of asbestos for decades, and workers were needlessly exposed to asbestos (a serious carcinogen) as a result. For this reason, if you suffer from mesothelioma because you worked with asbestos, you have a very good chance of recovering money damages for your illness—either from the company that manufactured or installed the asbestos or through an insurer or victims' compensation fund that has assumed liability on the company's behalf. Learn more about mesothelioma and asbestos claims.

For information on filing a personal injury claim, see How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

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