What You Need to Know About PFAS Lawsuits

What are PFAS? Are they harmful? Have PFAS lawsuits been filed? Can I sue? We answer these questions and more.

By , Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 6/06/2024

Turns out diamonds aren't the only things that are forever.

Science and medicine are learning more about PFAS, human-made compounds dubbed "forever chemicals." Once they find their way into the environment—or the human body—they accumulate and can remain for a very long time. Research has linked PFAS exposure to a number of dangerous health conditions, and the list is expected to grow.

Legislatures and regulatory agencies, state and federal, have been slow to respond. As a result, it's been up to the courts to hold PFAS makers and users legally responsible for past and future harms associated with these forever chemicals.

The first wave of PFAS litigation, including personal injury lawsuits for PFAS exposure, is well underway. If you've been exposed to PFAS, or if you've been diagnosed with a condition associated with PFAS exposure, you should take the time to learn about your legal rights and what you need to do to protect them.

We begin with an overview of PFAS—what they are, where they're found, and the health problems they're known to cause. From there, we'll explain the biggest group of PFAS lawsuits now pending, where those cases are in the litigation process, and the steps you should take if you want to make a PFAS personal injury claim.

PFAS Overview: What They Are, Where They're Found, and More

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of almost 15,000 human-made chemicals. They're resistant to heat, water, grease, and oil, and they last in the environment for very long periods without degrading. PFAS can withstand temperature extremes and have useful non-stick properties. They've been widely used in industry and consumer products since the 1950s.

Where Have PFAS Been Found?

PFAS have been detected in the air, soil, and water, and in plants and animals all over the world. These chemicals move from air to soil to water and back with ease, and they can build up over time. Places with longer and heavier exposures—for example, facilities in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, and construction industries—are likely to have higher PFAS accumulations.

(Learn more about how PFAS cycle through the environment.)

It's no exaggeration to say that PFAS are almost everywhere. Here's a partial list of places and things where they've been found:

  • Food products. PFAS have been detected in livestock, dairy products, fish, and plant-based foods.
  • Drinking water supplies. Most public water systems and private wells that have been tested are contaminated with some level of PFAS. They've also been found in bottled water.
  • Consumer products. A wide variety of consumer products are made with PFAS. Among the most common are paints, varnishes, sealants, cleaning products, and water- and stain-proofing substances used on clothing, footwear, carpets, and furniture.
  • Food packaging and cookware. Because they're temperature-stable and have non-stick properties, PFAS have been used in food and drink packaging, food containers, food wrappers, and non-stick cookware.
  • Firefighting foam. Flame- and combustion-resistant foams, used to control and put out fires, are widely used by firefighters, industry, and the military.
  • Waste treatment and disposal facilities. PFAS have been detected in soil and water samples at and around landfills, waste disposal facilities, and hazardous waste sites.
  • Personal care items. Shampoos, dental floss, and makeup products have been formulated with PFAS.

Have I Been Exposed to PFAS?

Almost certainly, yes. One Centers for Disease Control study concluded that 97% of all Americans have been exposed. Firefighters and those working in manufacturing industries where PFAS are heavily used tend to have much higher concentrations than the national average.

Outside of manufacturing, most PFAS exposure comes from eating food or drinking water that contains PFAS. You might also absorb PFAS by breathing contaminated air or soil particles. PFAS tend not to be readily absorbed through the skin, so touching contaminated products isn't thought to be a significant route of exposure.

A blood test can reveal whether you've been exposed to PFAS. Before testing, here are some things you should know. For starters, a PFAS test isn't a "routine" blood test. Your doctor might not be willing to order it. Most labs don't offer PFAS testing, and those that do likely will charge several hundred dollars. Check with your health insurer first, because a PFAS test might not be covered.

If you decide to pursue testing on your own, consider speaking to a PFAS lawyer. The lawyer might work with one or more labs and can help you set up the test.

(Learn more about PFAS testing.)

I've Been Exposed to PFAS. Does That Mean I'll Get Sick?

Not necessarily. Most people who are exposed to low levels of PFAS don't experience any adverse health effects.

The likelihood that you'll get sick depends on several factors. For example, If you worked in a field where PFAS exposure is known to be much higher than average—civilian or military firefighting, the automotive industry, or certain kinds of manufacturing, for instance—then you might have greater reason for concern.

Should you develop an illness that's associated with PFAS exposure (see below), you'll need to consult with medical and other experts to find out how likely it is that your condition was caused by PFAS. It's up to you to prove this legal element, called "causation." The fact that you were exposed and later got sick doesn't mean that your illness was caused by PFAS.

An attorney who specializes in PFAS lawsuits can tell you more and will work with you to develop the legal elements of your case.

What Illnesses Are Associated With PFAS Exposure?

PFAS exposure has been correlated with a wide range of potential adverse health effects. Here again, the fact that there's a correlation doesn't mean that in every instance where an illness appears, it was caused by PFAS. For some conditions, the link to PFAS exposure is more certain than for others.

Conditions where the link is more certain. Research has shown strong causal correlations between between these conditions and PFAS exposure:

Conditions where the link is less certain. Based on existing research, a causal link between these conditions and PFAS exposure appears likely but is less clear:

Keep in mind that new research is ongoing. As further study happens, it's likely that other illnesses and conditions will be tied to PFAS exposure. Your PFAS lawyer can update you with the latest developments.

Have PFAS Lawsuits Been Filed?

Yes, thousands of them, all over the country. These lawsuits fall into three categories.

  • Contamination of drinking water supplies. Typically filed by states, municipalities, or government entities like water supply districts, these cases seek compensation ("damages," in the language of the law) for testing and monitoring, cleanup, and more.
  • Environmental contamination. Again, these suits usually are filed by the government, claiming that soil, surface and subsurface water supplies, and other parts of the natural environment have been contaminated. As with the drinking water supply suits, these cases look to recover damages for testing, monitoring, cleanup, and more.
  • Personal injury claims. PFAS personal injury lawsuits are filed by individuals claiming they've been made sick (or a relative was killed) by PFAS-related disease.

The Largest Group of PFAS Lawsuits

Presently, the largest group of lawsuits—consisting of more than 8,000 cases—involves claims of PFAS contamination caused by firefighting foam. Because there are so many of them (and the number is expected to increase), these "aqueous film-forming foam" (AFFF) cases have been consolidated into what's known as "multidistrict litigation" in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

Multidistrict litigation (MDL) is a way to manage litigation when there are lots of cases involving similar facts and injuries. All of the cases that qualify are transferred to one federal trial court—in this instance, a court in South Carolina—so that one judge can preside over pretrial matters like motions, discovery, and preparing cases for trial.

In most MDLs, the court will also conduct one or more "bellwether trials." Representative cases are selected and tried to the court or a jury. The goal is to give the parties and their lawyers a better idea of how the remaining cases will play out, hoping that they'll settle without the need for trials.

The AFFF Multidistrict Litigation

This MDL involves all three types of lawsuits mentioned above—drinking water supply, environmental contamination, and personal injury claims. Because they're likely to impact millions of people nationwide, the judge decided to start with the drinking water supply claims. The way these cases have been handled sheds light on how the personal injury claims, which are next in line, are likely to proceed.

Discovery and other pretrial matters in the drinking water supply cases took many years. The judge then scheduled several bellwether trials. Once those trials were scheduled, it turned up the heat on settlement talks. Before any cases went to trial, settlements began to happen.

As of now, these four defendants (parties who've been sued) have settled drinking water supply cases:

  • 3M has agreed to pay between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion, plus another $5 million for settlement administration costs
  • DuPont has agreed to pay $1.185 billion
  • Tyco has settled for $750 million, and
  • BASF has agreed to settle for $315 million.

Note, once again, that these settlements are for drinking water supply claims, not for personal injury cases. Over a dozen drinking water supply defendants remain, and more settlements are expected. Payouts of the 3M and DuPont settlements should begin in the summer of 2024.

Next up are the personal injury lawsuits. A recent scheduling order describes two groups of personal injury cases that will be readied for bellwether trials in 2025.

  • Group A cases. Group A cases will consist of three plaintiffs (people who have filed lawsuits) who claim their kidney cancer was caused by AFFF PFAS exposure, and three plaintiffs who claim to have developed testicular cancer from AFFF PFAS exposure.
  • Group B cases. These five cases will include three plaintiffs who allege that their thyroid disease resulted from AFFF PFAS exposure and two plaintiffs claiming that their ulcerative colitis was caused by AFFF PFAS exposure.

Discovery in the personal injury cases has been ongoing and will continue into 2025. In particular, all eyes will be on expert witness discovery. The plaintiffs' experts will explain how PFAS contamination and exposure happened, and how PFAS caused the plaintiffs' illnesses. The defendants' experts will try to challenge or rebut the plaintiffs' experts' opinions.

What the experts have to say, and how the judge rules on requests to limit or exclude expert opinions during the bellwether trials, will strongly influence the likelihood of personal injury settlements.

Why the AFFF MDL Matters Even If You're Not an AFFF Plaintiff

The AFFF MDL is likely to have significant repercussions in PFAS claims that don't involve AFFF. Why? Because some of the evidence in the AFFF MDL will be representative of the evidence in non-AFFF PFAS cases. And some of the expert witnesses who are involved in the AFFF MDL cases will probably be hired to work on other PFAS cases.

Among other things, it's likely that there will be similarities in the evidence regarding:

  • the mechanics of PFAS movement and contamination—for example, how PFAS contaminate the air, soil, groundwater, food products, drinking water, and more
  • how people are exposed to PFAS and how PFAS accumulate in, and are eliminated from, the body, and
  • the illnesses and conditions that are caused by PFAS exposure, and how PFAS causes those illnesses and conditions.

Of course, the fact that the evidence will be similar doesn't mean the AFFF cases will be dispositive of other PFAS lawsuits. Each case must succeed or fail on its own facts. In addition, other cases might involve illnesses that aren't present in the AFFF MDL. The parties and their experts undoubtedly will disagree over the link between those illnesses and PFAS exposure.

How Can I Bring a PFAS Lawsuit?

Bringing a PFAS lawsuit involves a process, one that's likely to take some time. In general, the process starts with getting your medical records from health care providers who are treating you for the condition you believe was caused by PFAS exposure.

You should hire a PFAS lawyer to help you through this process. Your lawyer, alone or working with other PFAS attorneys, will analyze the facts of your claim and let you know whether you have a potential case.

Finding a Lawyer If You Think You Have an AFFF Case

If you believe your PFAS exposure resulted from AFFF, you can contact the class counsel who've been appointed in the AFFF MDL. You also can get in touch with one of the law firms listed as part of the "Plaintiffs' Executive Committee" on the MDL court's website.

Finding a Lawyer for a Different Kind of PFAS Case

The lawyers handling the AFFF MDL cases are a good point of first contact even if you have a different kind of PFAS case. Chances are their law firms are or will be involved in other PFAS cases. If not, they probably can refer you to a lawyer who can help.

Other Ways to Find a Lawyer

There are other ways you can find a good lawyer. Just make sure the one you hire is experienced with mass chemical exposure lawsuits. These kinds of cases involve unique factual, legal, and procedural issues that aren't likely to be found in, say, a car accident claim.

Lots of very good attorneys across the country are representing PFAS plaintiffs. They'll be glad to review your case, if you're willing to do the legwork to find them.

Why a Lawyer Might Not Take Your PFAS Case

A lawyer might not be willing to take your PFAS case, even if you've been exposed and are (or have been) ill. Why? There can be lots of reasons, but one of the most common in mass exposure cases like these is causation. You must prove it's more likely than not that your condition was caused by PFAS.

It might be that your PFAS levels are too low to be the likely cause of an illness. Maybe your illness is one for which the science just doesn't show a strong causal link to PFAS. There might be other, more likely causes for your condition—smoking, drinking or drug use, or exposure to other illness-causing chemicals or substances.

Ask the lawyer to explain, and don't be afraid to get a second opinion.

How Much Is a PFAS Personal Injury Lawsuit Worth?

At this point, there's not a good answer to that question. Potential case values will start to come into sharper focus once the AFFF MDL personal injury lawsuits run their course.

Generally speaking, though, the value of any personal injury case turns on two factors: Liability and damages. Liability is concerned with proof that the defendant's intentional or negligent misbehavior caused you to develop an illness or suffer an injury.

In a PFAS case your damages will depend on several factors, such as:

  • the kind of illness you develop
  • the nature and extent of the medical treatments you must go through
  • how much income you lose because of your illness
  • the pain, suffering, and emotional distress you experience because of your illness and the treatments you require
  • whether your illness will leave you with permanent injuries or disabilities, and
  • the likelihood that your illness will reduce your life expectancy.

Once the AFFF MDL personal injury suits begin settling or bellwether trials are finished, your lawyer will be better able to estimate a range of settlement values with more confidence.

Don't Try to Handle Your PFAS Case Alone

A PFAS lawsuit is a textbook example of a complex product liability case. Handling your own PFAS suit without experienced counsel is the legal equivalent of trying to navigate your way through a minefield while blindfolded. The tiniest mistake is likely to prove very costly, and you probably won't know you've erred until it's too late.

Don't delay. Your state's "statute of limitations" puts a deadline on the time you have to file your case in court. Miss the filing deadline and you probably lose the right to recover damages for your losses. Your PFAS lawyer can fill you in on the details.

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