Toxic Spills and Mass Torts: Victims can Recover for Mental Trauma and Distress

October 21, 2020 Burn Injuries

Toxic Spills and Mass Torts: Victims can Recover for Mental Trauma and Distress

A recent case from the Louisiana Court of Appeals has made it easier for Louisiana residents to recover for emotional distress and trauma with respect to toxic chemical spills and other mass torts. Generally, here in Louisiana, there is no free-standing independent ability to sue for the infliction of emotional distress or trauma. To recover money damages for mental trauma, a victim must ALSO have suffered some physical injury or property damage.

Thus, for example, a victim of a Louisiana automobile accident can recover for mental trauma and emotional distress because those mental injuries flow from a physical event — the auto crash — which caused physical damage and also mental injury.

This general rule was announced long ago in a Louisiana Supreme Court case called Moresi v. State, Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, 567 So. 2d 1081 (La. Supreme Court 1990). The Moresi case also provided for a third situation in which compensation can be awarded for emotional distress and trauma

(3) where the mental trauma arises from “special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious”

The recent Louisiana Court of Appeals case mentioned above has held that one such “special circumstance” involves toxic chemical spills. This means that Louisiana residents can now recover money damages for emotional distress and trauma even in the absence of proof that there was physical harm or damage to their property. See Adams v. Union Pacific RR Co., 273 So.3d 419 La. Court of Appeals, 3rd Cir. 2019).

In Adams, a Union Pacific train derailed in August 2013 near Lawtell, Louisiana. Among the railcars that derailed were various tanker cars carrying lube oil, dodecanol, sodium hydroxide solution and vinyl chloride. The spill of toxic chemicals resulted in a one-mile radius evacuation zone that remained in effect for three days.

One of the residents, Charlene Brown, sued Union Pacific (and others). Brown claimed that, as a result of the chemical spill, she suffered mental anxiety and trauma. The trial court awarded Brown money damages for her emotional distress and the Louisiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals held that the derailment, the fear and uncertainty of the threat related to the chemical spill, Brown’s proximity to the derailment and the evacuation that occurred presented the type of “special circumstances” described in the Moresi case. Note that the Court of Appeals did not rely on the physical harm Moresi exception even though Brown testified that, right after the derailment, she smelled something “like acid or something burning,” that her eyes started burning and got red and that she started suffering from sinus infections. For whatever reason, the Court of Appeals ignored the physical harm aspect of the case and, instead, relied on “special circumstances” as the basis for upholding the award of damages for emotional distress.

This is good news for residents of Louisiana. Toxic spills are very dangerous and cause a great deal of fear and anxiety among the public, even if there is no direct exposure. Fear of exposure and fear of injury or death is real. The decision in Adams is welcomed because Louisiana residents should be allowed to recover for fear and trauma caused by the negligence of those that allow toxic chemical spills and other mass torts to occur.

Mansfield Melancon Attorneys can Help: Call Today

If you have been injured in a Louisiana toxic spill or other act of negligence, contact the Louisiana personal injury attorneys at Mansfield, Melancon, Cranmer & Dick LLC. We have proven experience with many types of personal injury cases and automobile accidents. Contact us by calling one of our offices: New Orleans at (504) 500-1108, Baton Rouge at (225) 612-0800, or Lafayette at (337) 409-0003. You can also request a free consultation by using our “Contact Us” page.