A decade ago, Roane County, Tennessee, suffered the worst coal ash spill in American history. A barrier gave way at the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”) Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee, pouring over 5 million cubic yards of coal ash (the waste left after coal is used to produce electricity) into two nearby rivers and over 300 acres of adjacent land. The incident sparked a debate and raised questions about how coal ash is handled. The TVA spent millions of dollars on cleanup and remediation, studying effects on the environment and establishing new parks and wildlife areas. Still, the effects linger, especially with workers who were tasked with assisting in the cleanup. The TVA hired Jacobs Engineering to clean the site; however, workers allege that Jacobs Engineering failed to provide them with adequate training or protection for dealing with material that included arsenic, mercury, and lead. A group of workers filed a toxic tort lawsuit in federal district court in Tennessee
A toxic tort is a personal injury resulting from exposure to a toxic substance, such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (chemical compounds used in electrical equipment), or even over-the-counter medication. You can be exposed to toxic substances in your workplace, in your environment, and even with the consumer products you use. While some of these substances are not harmful in small doses, larger amounts can cause illness and death. If you are injured by exposure to such a chemical, you may be entitled to financial compensation for any injuries or losses (for example, medical costs and lost wages). You may be able to file a claim against the manufacturer of the chemical, or against any entity that exposed you to that chemical in your workplace, school, or environment. Unfortunately, these claims can be difficult to prove because they depend on scientific data and expert testimony. Opinions about what is safe and what isn’t may change over time. And there’s a further complication: it may take years for the effects of exposure to a toxic substance to be felt and seen. You may fall ill long after any contact with the substance…and long after any evidence of that contact has dispersed.
In the case of the Kingston coal ash spill, however, a federal court ruled that Jacobs Engineering failed to keep its employees safe. Thirty of those employees have died, and another 250 are sick or dying. Since the trial was bifurcated between liability and damages, employees may now seek damages for their injuries, including seeking medical testing for employees who have not yet fallen ill. This outcome suggests that toxic tort suits can have wide-ranging implications not only for manufacturers of toxic substances but also for companies and employees who work with them.