Love Canal Essay, Research Paper
May 15, 2001
There are some important legal aspects to the Love Canal case. Many civil actions or torts were brought against Hooker/Occidental during and after the Love Canal incident. By nineteen-eighty, Occidental faced over two billion dollars in lawsuits mainly from Love Canal but also from violations in other parts of the country. Assets would be sold off and all the people would only get a little bit of money and the government would be stuck with the cleanup.
This two billion dollar figure includes all the punitive damage cases brought about by individuals as well as the lawsuits filed by the federal, state, and city officials. Much of these figures were purposely inflated so when they were negotiated down the plaintiffs would still get a reasonable amount of money. This figure also included both punitive and compensatory damages. The courts eventually found that Occidental was liable for only compensatory damages. Occidental was not held accountable for punitive damages because a federal court judge found that they had not acted with “reckless or wanton disregard of safety or rights”. This is one of the standards that must be proved along with negligence to continue with punitive damage lawsuits. This decision also lowered the amount of the lawsuits considerably so Occidental could afford to pay some of the damages.
Companies are normally held to strict liability when it comes too toxic dumping. This means if the chemicals are there illegally than it is the company who is responsible for them. In this case the company is at least partly responsible but the school board and city of Niagara Falls also acted negligently. Why then weren’t they sued as well? The answer lies in the deep pockets theory of torts. This theory says sue the biggest company with the most money. Since toxic dumping is held in strict liability, Hooker admitted putting the chemicals there, and they have a lot of money, they were the perfect target for all the huge lawsuits that followed.
Another important legal concept involved in this case is the slippery slope idea. This is an important motivator for government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to regulate pollutants and force companies in violation to clean up their act. This concept basically says if you give an inch they take a mile. It is important to go after large companies and make sure they are following the rules and clean up their messes so that they don’t become environmental pigs dumping tuns of chemicals into our fragile environment.
After years of litigation Occidental finally paid the government 129 million dollars for cleanup of the Love Canal sight. They paid 102 million into the superfund and 27 million to the federal government on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This was in compensation for the money the government spent in declaring Love Canal a state of emergency. One legal loophole that is not widely publicized is that for the money put into the superfund by Occidental 64.5 million could be given back to them in the form of a tax credit. This involves legal maneuvering to get Occidental to settle the case removing a lot of political stress. And the government will get some money to help the clean up.
Throughout this case there was a lot of legal maneuvering as well as political pressure put on the legal system. It was an emotionally charged case with multiple parties responsible for the love canal disaster but at the time the dangers were not as clear as they are now. It’s a lot easier to look back and criticize than it is to make the best decisions as one goes along. Regulatory agencies like the EPA and FEMA are so important in protecting Americans from companies in violation of environmental laws.