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  • Writer's pictureJames Dean

Holding Oil and Plastics Industries Accountable: A Legal Argument for Liability

The oil and plastics industries have long enjoyed substantial profits while externalizing the costs of their harmful products onto society and the environment. However, a compelling legal argument can be made for holding these industries liable for the health and environmental damages they cause. The economic costs of chronic health illnesses and climate change damages caused by toxic fossil fuels such as oil and petroleum based plastics now exceeds $2 trillion annually. I calculate it will reach about $38 trillion annually by 2038, if significant steps are not taken globally to reduce pollution writes author James E Dean

The Government's Limitations

Governments possess neither the resources nor the specialized knowledge to effectively monitor and regulate every industry. This inherent limitation necessitates placing the responsibility for product safety and environmental impact squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers and producers, who are the true experts in their respective fields.

The Manufacturer's Duty of Care

As the experts, manufacturers and producers have a duty of care to ensure their products do not harm people or the environment, both in the short and long term. Failure to uphold this duty results in a harmful product that inflicts the cost of damages on the public, who have not benefited from the production or sale of these toxic products. Increasingly, fossil fuel companies are being held liable for the pollution caused by their oil and gas production.

For example, Vermont and Pennsylvania have recently joined a growing list of states taking legal action against oil companies for their role in climate change. In Vermont, the Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit in 2021 alleging that ExxonMobil, Shell, and other major oil companies deceived consumers about the impact of their fossil fuel products on climate change, violating the state's consumer protection laws. Similarly, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in 2023 accusing several oil and gas companies of misleading the public about the environmental and health impacts of fracking and natural gas production, resulting in significant harm to the state's environment and residents. These lawsuits seek to hold oil companies accountable for their role in climate change and the damages inflicted upon the environment and public health. Watch Video on Economic Costs of Climate Change

The Unfair Burden on Consumers

It is fundamentally unjust to expect the public or individual consumers to shoulder the burden of damages caused by products they purchase. Consumers enter into a transactional agreement, relying on the representations of the manufacturer, without the expectation or knowledge of potential negative impacts beyond what is disclosed. This creates an implicit "contract" where the manufacturer, as the expert, is obligated to provide accurate and complete information about their product's potential harm.

The Case for Liability

If oil or plastics companies fail to disclose at the point of sale that their products could cause cancer, contribute to climate change, contaminate drinking water, or pollute soil, they should be held liable for the resulting damages. This liability is especially justified considering that these companies profit immensely from the sale of these products while externalizing the costs of their harm onto society.

Legal Precedent and Principles

This argument aligns with established legal principles, such as the concept of strict liability, which holds manufacturers responsible for damages caused by their products regardless of fault. Additionally, the principle of internalizing externalities supports the idea that businesses should bear the full cost of their operations, including any negative impacts on society or the environment.


Holding oil and plastics industries liable for the health and environmental damages caused by their products is not only a matter of justice but also a necessary step towards a sustainable and equitable future. By internalizing the costs of their harm, we incentivize these industries to prioritize safety, sustainability, and transparency in their practices. This approach ensures that the burden of environmental and health costs is borne by those who profit from them, rather than by the public or individual consumers.

About Author

James E Dean resides in the Greater Cleveland Ohio community. Mr. Dean brings over 35 years of experience across a wide range of industries worldwide. He is considered by many to be a leading expert in the energy sector, retail eCommerce, brand marketing and AI technology.  J Dean is also a frequent Blogger, and graduate of Boston University. He enjoys collecting antiques, travel and fitness. Email  Message


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