News Room

Will Climate Change Heat Up Personal Injury Law?

By Brian S. Kabateck

A whopping 31 atmospheric rivers hit California this winter, delivering epic floods, record snowfall, and what seemed like endless wet, chilly weather. Then an early heatwave simultaneously brought Southern California’s first wildfire and the threat of flooding as the snowpack melts. These extremes and seeming contradictions can feel confusing, frightening, and overwhelming.

As the State of California, the country, and the world grapple with the rate, magnitude, and effects of climate change—including the resulting rise in natural disasters that cause death and destruction to people, homes, and businesses—the role of the law in such cases is evolving.

Climate change litigation is expanding—both in number of cases and type of suits. According to the United Nations Environment Program Report, in 2020, 1,550 climate lawsuits were filed in 38 countries, up from 884 in 24 countries in 2017—nearly doubling over four years.

While most claims were against governments, suits against corporations have also risen—many with a state or local government as the plaintiff. Diverse cases have alleged human rights violations; failure to follow through on climate change commitments by enforcing mitigation measures; corporations contributing to greenhouse gas emissions; corporate “greenwashing” (false or misleading messaging that exaggerates a business’ environmental friendliness); and failure to adequately prepare for the effects of climate change; as well as efforts to compel climate initiatives through lawsuits.

It’s easy to understand how a field like environmental law must develop in response to climate change; what may be less evident is that personal injury law is also impacted.

As climate change accelerates the occurrence and severity of natural disasters like tropical storms, wildfires, drought, and floods—plus conditions such as rising sea levels and intense heat waves—communities and individuals are physically endangered by these phenomena clearly and directly. But there are also injuries and deaths caused by climate change in less obvious ways.

In January 2020, Time Magazine reported on new findings published in Nature Medicine. “An estimated 2,135 additional people could die yearly in the United States due to climate change-related injuries like assaults, drownings, and falls if temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius over current long-term averages.”

While the effects of climate change on human health have been studied before, previous research focused primarily on the relationship between climate change and disease, both chronic (ex: cardiovascular) and infectious (ex: malaria).

But according to the Nature Medicine study, which examined the 38 years from 1980-2017, bizarre and extreme temperatures are likewise associated with increased deaths from injury—falls, motor vehicle accidents, and violent crimes, as well as suicide, which, a 2018 Stanford study found, increases with each 1 degree Celsius in temperatures over monthly averages.

Of these projected climate-related injury mortalities, 84% would be male and 16% female. Of the excess male deaths, 92% would be between 15 and 64 years old.

Why does climate change cause an increase in these types of injuries? Drowning deaths rise in the heat. People’s driving performance also deteriorates as the temperature increases. In addition, alcohol consumption goes up. Though the correlation is not yet specific, researchers believe the evidence suggests that a decline in mental health (increased anger and distress) in extreme temperatures may account for the uptick in intentional injuries.

Like science and society, the law must prepare and adapt for a changing climate and anticipate its ripple effects.

At Kabateck LLP, we have many years of experience handling cases involving loss and destruction caused by natural disasters. Our skilled and caring attorneys also represent individuals who have suffered injury or wrongful death due to the negligence, recklessness, or ill intent of others in personal injury cases. If you or someone you love has been injured in a natural disaster or climate-related incident, we are ready to evaluate your case and help you explore your options for recovering compensation.