Causation — the link between an actor’s behavior and subsequent harm to another — is a vital component of a variety of legal doctrines. Requiring that a plaintiff show a causal connection between her injury and the defendant’s action satisfies the instinct that remedies for an injury should come from those who are responsible. Yet as any first-year torts student knows, pinpointing the actor(s) responsible for an injury can be factually and conceptually difficult, if not impossible. To further obfuscate clear analysis, “causation” can refer to many distinct concepts, due to different requirements in different doctrines. The result is that courts may often analyze causation in vastly differing ways, even in cases where the injury and instigating act are remarkably similar. The treatment of causation has been particularly inconsistent in environmental cases. This Note explores the disparate treatment of causation in environmental law and toxic torts. Courts can adapt the distinction between general and specific causation used in toxic tort law to clarify standing analysis and avoid prematurely deciding merits questions in environmental suits.
Environmental and toxic tort suits constitute broad, amorphous, and sometimes overlapping categories. To aid clarity, for the purposes of this Note, “toxic tort suits” refer to personal injury cases that allege a harm, generally a physical injury, due to exposure to a toxic substance.1×1. See generally MARGIE SEARCY-ALFORD, A GUIDE TO TOXIC TORTS § 1.01 (LexisNexis) (last visited May 8, 2015). Congress has also passed a number of statutes governing toxic substances, some of which create causes of action for toxic exposures. Because several of the statutes are often considered environmental statutes, to avoid confusion, this Note limits its discussion of toxic torts to suits under common law. Toxic tort suits can cover a wide variety of toxic exposures, including those from toxic products, toxic materials in a workplace, and toxic discharges into the environment. “Environmental suits,” in contrast, refer to cases that allege an injury to plaintiffs’ interests due to a harm to the environment or a violation of an environmental statute. Environmental suits thus can be further divided into two subcategories: those asserting rights under common law, such as public nuisance, and those asserting rights created by statute.
There are many similarities between toxic tort and environmental cases; indeed, some toxic tort suits are considered environmental suits by scholars and practitioners alike.2×2. Examples of toxic tort suits that are treated as environmental cases include Koehn v. Ayers, 26 F. Supp. 2d 953, 955 (S.D. Tex. 1998) (granting summary judgment against claims under, inter alia, nuisance, toxic tort, and various environmental statutes for dumping of oil field wastes), and Ayers v. Township of Jackson, 525 A.2d 287, 291 (N.J. 1987) (considering various tort claims based on exposure to landfill-contaminated water). See also Palma J. Strand, Note, The Inapplicability of Traditional Tort Analysis to Environmental Risks: The Example of Toxic Waste Pollution Victim Compensation, 35 STAN. L. REV. 575, 575 (1983) (characterizing tort cases regarding toxic waste disposal problems as concerning “environmental risks” (internal quotation marks omitted)). First, in the most archetypal version of both types of suits, the defendants have created, sold in the marketplace, or discharged into the environment an injurious substance, such as a commercial drug with previously unknown negative side effects, chemical waste leaking from a landfill,3×3. See Arvin Maskin, Litigating Claims for Punitive Damages: The View from the Front Line, 31 LOY. L.A. L. REV. 489, 490–91 (1998). or a “noxious gas” that causes acid rain.4×4. Georgia v. Tenn. Copper Co., 206 U.S. 230, 236 (1907); see also id. at 238 (describing how the gas became sulfuric acid in the atmosphere). Second, for both types of suits, the injuries or theories of causation alleged are often based on cutting-edge research, and resolving the claims often requires difficult factual or technical determinations, particularly in establishing a causal link between the offending substance and the claimed injury. Finally, even though such complex, fact-intensive determinations might seem better suited to factfinders, in both types of suits, causation is often determined by judges as a matter of law.
Despite these similarities, causation is treated quite differently in environmental suits compared to toxic tort suits, particularly in those suits where a judge finds that causation does not exist as a matter of law. In environmental suits, causation is typically analyzed as a component of Article III standing, a jurisdictional inquiry that precedes any other aspect of the case.5×5. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env’t, 523 U.S. 83, 88–89 (1998) (noting that the standing inquiry comes before any merits inquiries, id., and that determining whether a cause of action exists under a statute is not jurisdictional, id. at 89). In contrast, in toxic tort cases, causation is rarely addressed under the standing inquiry. Instead, dismissal of a toxic tort case for lack of causation is typically based on whether the plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence on causation, after standing has been established (or presumed).6×6. See, e.g., Norris v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 397 F.3d 878, 885–88 (10th Cir. 2005) (affirming summary judgment for defendants due to lack of evidence showing causation); Redland Soccer Club v. Dep’t of the Army, 55 F.3d 827, 851–52 (3d Cir. 1995) (reversing the lower court’s summary judgment finding of no causation); cf. Earl v. Cryovac, 772 P.2d 725, 731 (Idaho Ct. App. 1989) (same). There are several possible reasons for the general lack of standing discussion in toxic tort cases. The first is that courts, like some scholars, are equating the concepts of injury and causation in standing with those in substantive tort law. See Jean Macchiaroli Eggen, Being Small in a Supersized World: Tackling the Problem of Low-Level Exposures in Toxic Tort Actions, 44 ENVTL. L. REP. 10630, 10632 (2014) (describing a single case — Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992) — as support for the standard for injury in both “[c]onstitutional standing and general state tort law”). Another possibility is that, in the majority of toxic tort cases, there is no dispute over whether a case or controversy exists, and judges find it unnecessary to address standing explicitly. Relatedly, courts have historically dismissed tort cases for lack of cognizable injury or proximate cause even before the development of the three-pronged standing test, see, e.g., Mitchell v. Rochester Ry. Co., 45 N.E. 354 (N.Y. 1896), overruled by Battalla v. State, 176 N.E.2d 729 (N.Y. 1961), and federal courts may have found it unnecessary to incorporate seemingly redundant standing analysis into tort doctrine.
This Note argues that causation in environmental law cases has been forced into jurisdictional standing analysis, even where the inquiry is more appropriate for later determination on the merits, which results in a significant and sometimes inappropriate barrier for environmental plaintiffs.7×7. However, not all environmental cases falter on standing. One notable exception is United States v. Students Challenging Regulatory Agency Procedures (SCRAP), 412 U.S. 669 (1973), which found standing for students challenging railroad rates based on the “attenuated line of causation” that the rate increase would increase use of nonrecyclable over recyclable products, which would result, inter alia, in more garbage discarded in national parks, id. at 688. SCRAP has been limited by subsequent Supreme Court decisions on standing. See, e.g., Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 889 (1990) (characterizing SCRAP as based on “its particular facts” and noting that its reasoning “has never since been emulated” by the Court). To resolve this issue, courts can adapt toxic tort doctrine’s distinction between general and specific causation to distinguish causation questions best suited for standing analysis from causation questions better left to a factfinder. The analysis proceeds in four Parts. Part I describes how the causation inquiry functions under tort law in most states, and how toxic tort inquiries into causation differ from such inquiries in other areas of tort law. Part II discusses the difficulties with the causation prong of Article III standing in the context of environmental suits. Part III explains the similarities and differences of the causation inquiries in both types of cases, and the problems that arise out of conflating causation in standing with causation on the merits. The last Part explores solutions and proposes applying toxic tort law’s general/specific causation distinction to environmental causation inquiries. Such an approach could both mitigate the perceived inconsistencies in standing analysis in environmental suits and help ensure that fact-intensive inquiries into causation are addressed only after full discovery.