When environmental factors make you sick, it can be hard for you and your doctors to connect the dots. Air pollution, emissions, run-off, and other industrial byproducts can seriously affect your health, decreasing your life span and quality of life. But when you take a company to court in a toxic tort lawsuit, it’s up to you to prove toxins caused your illness. In most cases, that means you’re going to need an expert.
Causation is Key in Proving Toxic Torts
When you live near a plant or factory that puts out a lot of smoke, sewage, or other waste, it can lead to serious illness. Sometimes the connection seems obvious, especially when your neighbors are suffering the same symptoms. But in science, and in court, correlation does not equal causation. Just because one thing happens at the same time, or in the same place, as something else doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second thing to happen. Sometimes correlations are coincidences or are caused by a third factor.
That’s why it isn’t enough for the victims of toxic torts to show they were exposed to toxins and then got sick. That’s a correlation. Instead, as a plaintiff in a toxic tort case, you must prove toxins caused your illness. Federal courts may require two levels of proof, depending on how well known the effects of a toxin are.
If doctors generally recognize the toxicity of a drug or chemical, you must show that exposure to the toxin directly caused the injuries you claim. This will depend on your injury, the chemicals involved, and the established science around exposure. Examples of these cases include asbestos causing cancer or lead causing brain damage. If your illness isn’t as commonly connected to the toxin, you will also have to prove the general question of whether the toxin can cause the kind of injury you suffered.
Using Experts to Prove Toxins Caused Your Illness
Showing causation in toxic tort cases almost always involves experts. Your personal injury attorney will need to work with doctors and scientists to prove toxins caused your illness. But not all experts are created equal. A recent Federal 11th Circuit Court opinion from Florida shows how important it is for your expert to explain how she or he came to her or his conclusions.
In Williams v Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, Rhonda Williams lived her entire life in a home near the Mosaic Fertilizer factory. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) site testing near the factory showed sulfur dioxide levels above the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (75 parts per billion). As a result, Williams said she suffered a range of respiratory problems. She said these illnesses were caused by the sulfur dioxide and other chemicals emitted by the Mosaic factory.
But her toxicologist’s expert report didn’t connect the dots. According to the Circuit Court, Dr. Mink’s preliminary expert opinions found that Williams had been exposed to the chemicals and that she developed significant adverse health effects and secondary effects (from the treatment of her conditions) due to the exposure. However, Dr. Mink’s report fell short on how those two things were connected. Specifically, the court said he:
- Failed to show how much of the toxin she had been exposed to and how that dose caused the illness (the dose-response relationship)
- Relied too heavily on regulatory standards to determine the dangerous dose level
- Failed to address evidence that other causes existed for the illness
- Failed to rule out Williams’s own background vulnerability to the illness
Altogether, Dr. Mink’s expert opinion was not considered scientifically credible. Since his word was the only thing connecting the sulfur dioxide to Williams’s respiratory trouble, the court found the case was properly dismissed.
Doctors and scientists don’t always know what a court is looking for to prove toxins caused your illness in a toxic tort case. To win, you need a personal injury lawyer who knows the law and can help you and your experts make your case. Otherwise, what you see as cause could be dismissed by the court as mere correlation.