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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Appendix B: Using Laws to Fight for Environmental Rights > Lawsuits

One way that environmental rights and justice can be won is by going to court to sue companies that violate national or international laws. A successful lawsuit against a polluting industry or company not only protects the people immediately affected, it also protects people in other places and future generations.

A man with a briefcase and a woman speak.
To protect our rights we must use the law
But to make the law work, we must struggle for our rights!

Will a lawsuit help your community?

Lawsuits have been used successfully in many struggles for environmental justice. But lawsuits are very expensive and they often take many years. If the lawsuit is against a corporation outside of your country, some international organizations may be able to help you find free lawyers (see Resources).

Even when a country has laws to protect health and the environment, it can be difficult to win a lawsuit in court. If the laws are not often used, judges and lawyers may not be aware of them. And in many countries, especially where corporations are very powerful, corruption among judges and politicians makes it difficult for poor communities to claim their rights. Unfortunately, there are many more unsuccessful lawsuits than successful lawsuits.

Before beginning a lawsuit against a corporation, industry, or government, think about whether it is the best use of your community resources. These are some things to consider.

Think about your goals

It is important to know exactly what you want a lawsuit to achieve. Then decide if a lawsuit is the best way to reach that goal. Do you want a company or the government to:

  • clean up an oil spill or other toxic pollution?
  • pay people for damages to their health, land, or resources?
  • shut down and leave the region or country?
  • avoid the pollution in the first place?

A legal battle can mobilize and educate the community. But actions such as boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, or public information campaigns may lead to negotiations or political settlements more quickly and easily than a long legal battle. Consider if these kinds of actions will be easier and more effective for your community to undertake than a lawsuit. Also consider if using both legal action and direct action will help your community to win.

Will a lawsuit be useful even if it does not succeed in court?

Of course you want to win your lawsuit. But if you are unsure whether your lawsuit can win, consider whether it will help or harm your cause if it does not win. A lawsuit can bring public attention to a community’s problems and can bring diverse environmental groups together even if it does not win in court. If a lawsuit involving environmental damage and human rights abuse is unsuccessful in your country’s courts, you may be able to take the complaint to an international body such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission or the United Nations. This still may not resolve the problem, but it can bring more attention to your issues; however, it also takes more time and resources.

Sometimes an unsuccessful lawsuit can make things worse. A bad result can lead judges and lawyers to think that future lawsuits should not win either. Negative publicity can cause people to think a community is unjustly demanding money or other rewards. And like any failed organizing effort, unsuccessful lawsuits can demoralize and divide a community.

Who will take the lawsuit to court?

The victim of harm, whether it is a person, a person’s family, or an entire community, must be willing to take on the work and the risks of a lawsuit. Usually an organization cannot bring a lawsuit against a company on behalf of someone who was harmed but who is not willing to join the lawsuit.

Is there proof of harm?

For a lawsuit to succeed, you must be able to prove:

  • The victims suffered physical or economic harm.
  • The corporation caused or is responsible for the harm.

If there is not enough evidence to prove this, the lawsuit may do more harm than good. Even when it is clear a company has violated the law, without proof that they caused harm you may not be allowed to bring a case to court, and if you do, you may not win.

Is the proof available?

Only proof that can be brought to court is useful in court. People who bring a lawsuit because they have suffered harm must be willing and able to speak in court, and they must have witnesses who are willing to speak as well. They must be able to show through pictures, studies, medical records, or some other evidence that harm was done to them by the corporation being sued. Harm can be very hard to prove. For example, a company may hire a doctor to say that it was not the chemicals it used that caused cancer among its workers, but instead it was workers bad habits such as smoking tobacco, eating an unhealthy diet, or just bad luck. It can be very hard to legally prove “cause and effect” even if it seems obvious based on common sense.

Who or what caused the harm?

Lawsuits can be brought against people, corporations, and in many countries against the government for causing environmental damage.

Is the lawsuit against a multinational corporation?

As a man and woman sit having a meal together, she reads a newspaper with the headline "Workers demand Justice from Factory

Multinational corporations often have offices in many countries. To successfully sue a multinational corporation it is necessary to work both in the country where the damage was done and in the corporation’s home country. This can be costly and difficult, but it can be done (see the stories “Asbestos miners finally win in court” and “The case against Texaco”).

Multinational companies often have branches in the countries where they work, called subsidiaries. It may be easier to sue the subsidiary of a company than to sue the foreign owner. For example, when the U.S. oil company Chevron polluted the Niger Delta in Nigeria, rather than suing the American company, local activists sued Chevron’s Nigerian subsidiary. At the same time, international activists launched a campaign to educate people around the world about Chevron’s human rights abuses, to pressure the company to change its practices.

Other things to consider

  • Was the harm or abuse committed recently? A lawsuit must be filed within a certain number of years after the harm was done (usually no more than 10 years). This makes it difficult to win a case about illnesses that may take many years to develop, like cancers, even though these can be the most severe illnesses.
  • Are the people bringing the lawsuit, their witnesses, and their lawyers willing to risk their safety? Many corporations and governments will stop at nothing to retain their power, including physical violence and murder. Those who challenge this power may put their lives at risk.
  • Is there money to pay for the lawsuit? Court fees, lawyers’ fees, international travel, phone calls, gathering proof, and other costs add up quickly.
  • Are you able to work many years on a lawsuit? A lawsuit can take from 3 to 10 years or more. Sometimes the victims have already died by the time their cases are resolved.