Toxic Torts

Author: Sylvia Kniest
Edited By: Rachel Hughes & Stephanie Nardei

Time: 2 class periods
Copy articles and prepare lecture on negligence and torts and cut sheets of paper for exit slips.
Materials: Articles from websites listed below


The teacher will introduce the concept of “toxic torts” and the role courts play in environmental law enforcement. Students will study examples of civil cases brought against corporations for violating environmental laws.

Students will be able to:
1. Define the following:

  • negligence
  • nuisance
  • tort
  • toxic tort

2. Discuss how courts settle disputes on environmental laws

National Social Studies Standards
III-D. What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?
V-E. How can citizens take part in civic life?

Teacher Background
Teacher will hold an interactive lecture on negligence and torts. The definitions are provided with this lesson.

Resource Websites

http://www.personal-injury-information.com/toxic_torts.html: definition of toxic torts
http://environment.about.com/library/images/blpollutionindex.htm: pollution images
http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/civil/caa/vepco.html case: clean air act
http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/civil/cwa/walmart2.html case: clean water act
http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/issues/natural_resources/documents/NWradex.htm case: radiation
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/readings/tmi.html 3-mile Island accident
(resources on 3 mile island & other similar topics)



Lesson 1:
Introduce the lesson by asking students:

  • What does the term environmental law mean to you?
  • Why do we need environmental laws?
  • How would our lives be different without them?

After the class has discussed these questions inform them that (as the previous lesson described), at times citizens must bring actions to court to enforce environmental laws when a government agency fails to do so.

Introduce the following legal terms from the Duhaime Legal Dictionary http://www.duhaime.org either through lecture/discussion or handout.

Not only are we responsible for the intentional harm we cause, but failure to act reasonably filters down to similar circumstances (i.e. "negligence") also giving rise to compensation. Negligence, if it causes injury to another, may cause a liability suit under tort (see definition below). Negligence is always assessed having regards to the circumstances and to the standard of care that would reasonably be expected of a person in similar circumstances. Everybody has a duty to ensure their actions do not cause harm to others.

Excessive or unlawful use of one's property to the extent of unreasonable annoyance or inconvenience to a neighbor or to the public. Nuisance is a tort.

Tort refers to that body of the law which will allow an injured person to obtain compensation from the person who caused the injury. Every person is expected to conduct themselves without injuring others. When they do so, either intentionally or by negligence they can be required by a court to pay money to the injured party ("damages") so that, ultimately, they will suffer the pain caused by their action. Tort also serves as a deterrent by sending a message to the community as to what is unacceptable conduct.

Toxic Tort
A case involving use of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste that may cause health problems for an individual or a group of people.

After discussing the terms show one or more of the pictures from:
An excellent example would be the picture of “Pollution from the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.” http://environment.about.com/library/images/blairpollutionf.htm
Use the photo to apply the legal terms to a real situation. Ask the students:

  • What is the “nuisance” illustrated in this picture?
  • Who would be “negligent” in this case?
  • Could this case result in a tort case? For example, is there a possibility a person(s) could suffer damages from what you see taking place in the picture? Explain.
    (You may want to show several different images if possible to promote a larger discussion.)

Lesson 2:
1. Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group one of the following articles to read: (some of the articles are longer than others, a jigsaw method might work well to help them get through the article)

2. As they read they should answer the following questions:

  • What was the title of the article you read?
  • Identify the plaintiff and defendant in the case.
  • What was the nuisance or what were the damages in the case?
  • Was this case an example of a toxic tort case or not? Explain.
  • Was there a settlement? Explain.

3. Allow students 15 minutes to discuss their answers.

4. Have students number off in each group 1-4 (groups of 5 will have 2-1’s). Pick one number (3 for example). Ask all the three’s to the front of the room to tell the class about their case by going over answers to questions.

After each group has discussed their article pass out a half-sheet of paper to every student. Ask them to respond to the following statements:

Environmental laws are necessary because……..
An example of a “toxic tort” is………
I agree or disagree that court cases are legitimate avenues to enforce environmental laws because………

Collect the slips from the students as they leave class at the end.


Embedded Assessment
Students should show an understanding of the court’s role in environmental law enforcement by their responses on the exit slips and answers to the questions from the readings.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
  Page Content: Rachel Hughes
Web Master: Travis Biazo