The Long-Term Tort: In Search of a New Causation Framework for Natural Resource Damages

Knudsen, Sanne H. | January 1, 2014

Recent scientific evidence is proving that toxic releases have long-term, unintended, and harmful consequences for the marine environment. Though a new paradigm is emerging in the scientific literature—one demonstrating that long-term impacts from oil spills are more significant than previously thought—legal scholars, regulators, and courts have yet to consider the law’s ability to remedy long-term ecological harms. While scholars have exhaustively debated causation questions related to latent injuries for toxic torts, they have overlooked the equally important and conceptually similar causation problems of long-term damages in the natural resource context. Likewise, only a few courts have considered the standards of proving causation for natural resource damages. They have not considered long-term injuries.

This Article provides a foundation for developing causation frameworks that respect the complexities of long-term ecological harms. Specifically, this Article uses scientific research to illustrate the causal difficulty of proving long-term ecological injuries. In doing so, it establishes the foreseeability of long-term injuries and the inadequacy of applying a traditional torts paradigm. Ultimately, this Article looks to toxic tort law and risk-of-injury cases for possible approaches to the causation challenges raised by long-term ecological injuries—these are challenges that, like latent toxic tort injuries, raise issues of time delay, aggregate exposure, synergistic effects, and multiple possible sources of harm.