What are the fact patterns for typical environmental lawsuits?

Although the facts of each case undoubtedly differ, most environmental lawsuits share some striking similarities.  The cases usually involve claims related to either property damage or personal injuries.  Although it is possible, they rarely involve both.  Property damage claims usually involve alleged damage to the air, surface, subsurface, surface water or groundwater at or near real estate owned by the plaintiff as opposed to personal injury claims which concern exposure to the plaintiffs themselves. 

With respect to property damage claims, the plaintiffs are typically the current owners of real estate which has been impacted by historical operations on their property or the current owners of a neighboring property which has been impacted due the migration of contaminants from a site with historical operations.  It is not unusual for the owner to have learned of the contamination when he attempted to sell his property and the lender for the buyer discovered it as part of its due diligence.  The problem, of which the current owner was previously unaware, now has to be dealt with if the owner ever wants to sell the property.  Dealing with the problem, however, can be very expensive and potentially take years if not decades to complete.

In addition, state regulations require the owner to report the contamination under threat of possible enforcement actions to be followed by the property cleanup at the owner’s expense.  In Texas, it also not uncommon to encounter property damage claims related to oil and gas activities.  In those cases, the plaintiffs typically own the surface estate or live on neighboring properties where oil and gas operations have occurred.  The defendant is typically the oil and gas operator or service provider that assisted in drilling and completing the well, or a midstream company that owns or operates a nearby compressor station and related equipment. 

Personal injury claims also arise in certain environmental lawsuits.  In those cases, the plaintiffs are typically employees, tenants or nearby residents to an industrial business that allegedly released toxic emissions into the air, groundwater or soil to which the plaintiffs were exposed that caused some type of illness or disease.  Typical examples include exposure to benzene, trichloroethylene, or asbestos which then caused the plaintiffs to develop serious illnesses.

Most cases are asserted on behalf of plaintiffs individually or on behalf of an entity that holds the title to the impacted real estate.  However, occasionally environmental lawsuits have also been asserted as class actions with varying degrees of success.  Although claims concerning air impacts are on the rise, to date, most of the environmental lawsuits have concerned impacts to groundwater and soil.

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