Train Accident Results in Airborne Toxic Chemical Exposures
A train derailment near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border in early 2023 left a hazardous situation for residents within a mile of the crash site when vinyl chloride was released into the air.
Residents of East Palestine, Ohio were victims of a shocking accident that might leave them with long-lasting effects.
On February 3, 2023, five cars from a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine. There were no immediate physical injuries associated with the train accident, but the injuries that will likely follow will be just as (if not more) devastating.
Just before the crash, the crew received a mechanical failure alarm and an emergency brake application was initiated. At the time of this writing, the NTSB was continuing to investigate when a potential defect happened and the crew’s response.
But this is no “ordinary” train derailment.
The train was comprised of more than 100 cars, 20 of which carried hazardous materials. 10 of those cars were involved in the derailment.
Five of the derailed cars carried vinyl chloride, and officials were concerned that it could hurl toxic fumes into the air and shoot deadly shrapnel as far as a mile radius. One car had a malfunctioning safety valve that prevented it from releasing the vinyl chloride inside.
Breathing in a high level of vinyl chloride could make a person pass out or die. It also causes dizziness, sleepiness, headaches, and an increased likelihood of liver, brain, lung and blood cancers. It produces redness and blisters when it comes into contact with human skin. This is a man-made chemical used in the production of PVC, and it can burn at room temperature.
There’s also risk associated with vinyl chloride in water. When water is contaminated with vinyl chloride, it can enter the air when the water is used for laundry, showers, cooking, etc. When vinyl chloride is in the air, it can form other chemicals like hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and carbon dioxide.
Continuing toxic hazard
Authorities shut down schools and businesses and evacuated residents from their homes within a mile of the derailment. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor air and water in the area. Still-burning fires will need to extinguish on their own, but officials planned a controlled release of vinyl chloride from the car with the faulty valve.
Because East Palestine is near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, evacuations were ordered by both states’ governors. According to officials, every resident left the area when ordered to evacuate.
What is a toxic tort?
Chemical exposure is included in personal injury law as a toxic tort.
A tort is a wrongful act that leads to civil liability. A toxic tort is a case when the plaintiff is injured from exposure to a chemical or toxin.
A toxic tort case typically falls into one of these 10 categories:
- Asbestos exposure that causes lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other lung disease
- Lead paint exposure that causes brain damage in children
- Pesticides, including dioxin and DDT, which cause birth injuries (i.e. birth defects)
- Contamination of groundwater or soil because of chemicals or waste dumping
- Workplace chemical exposure
- Toxic landfill waste, which can cause leukemia and other illnesses
- Mold exposure, which could cause respiratory illness
- Dry cleaning chemicals and solvents, which cause brain and major organ damage
- Environmental exposure to gases or airborne toxins
- Chemicals in defective medications (pharmaceutical or product liability)
Can the residents of East Palestine sue for their injuries?
This incident is still unfolding, but there might be financial relief for individuals who were harmed by this train accident.
Strict liability standard
Most personal injury lawsuits hinge on a negligence standard. This means the plaintiff (injured person) has to prove that the defendant owed them a duty, that the defendant breached that duty, the breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and that the injuries had a financial cost.
However, in a toxic tort case, or one where the injuries were caused by exposure to a harmful chemical or toxin, the court will often follow a strict liability standard. This allows for a plaintiff to make their case without proving negligence or intent. This is often permitted because a situation is deemed so inherently dangerous that the court doesn’t need the plaintiff to prove how their injury happened.
Sometimes, a court will apply this standard to a toxic tort because the defendant was engaged in something abnormally dangerous.
In this instance, transporting a hazardous chemical might not be viewed as abnormally dangerous (especially since it is necessary), but the court will likely be very interested in the malfunctioning valve, whether all other regulations related to rail freight and chemicals were followed, personnel training, and other issues that could be related to the accident—both the derailment and the chemical leak.
There could be several defendants in this case; they might include employees of the train operator, employees of the railroad, the manufacturer of the train, or others. It remains to be seen as the investigation unfolds in the coming days, weeks, or even months.
Any person who suffered injury as a result of the accident could have a cause of action for a lawsuit. Exceptions could be employees of the railroad or a nearby business whose injuries are covered by workers’ compensation benefits or FELA.
People who were evacuated from their homes likely do not have grounds for a lawsuit if they were able to return home shortly after the incident cleared and there was no long-term harm to their property, air or water quality, or personal injury.
If you were injured by toxic contamination, you could claim damages (compensation) for:
- Medical treatment (both past and future treatment related to the injury)
- Property cleanup or remediation
- Costs for diminished property value
- Punitive damages (sometimes awarded to punish a defendant when the wrong was found to be willful or especially damaging)
It’s important to note that the presence of a toxin is not enough to bring a toxic tort claim. You also need to prove that you were harmed by exposure. Potential for harm isn’t enough, you need to prove that actual harm occurred in order to recover damages.
If you are a victim of an injury related to the East Palestine train derailment or another toxic tort or chemical exposure injury, you can contact a personal injury lawyer near you to determine your best course of action for receiving compensation for your losses.