When companies break the laws that govern asbestos use and removal, they can face criminal charges. At the federal level, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can enforce the law. States also enforce their own laws.
However, criminal cases are not the only outcome for asbestos violations. Officials can also pursue civil charges, as Massachusetts recently did. The state’s Attorney General announced a lawsuit against four companies involved in the improper removal of asbestos from a Springfield YMCA.
Criminal versus civil charges
There are several important differences between criminal and civil charges. The EPA addresses these on its website, pointing out that:
- Criminal cases involve a higher standard of proof and the question of intent
- Only criminal cases may lead to prison time
- Both criminal and civil charges may lead to hefty fines and restitution
- Companies facing civil charges often try to settle and avoid admitting guilt
This means it’s often easier for agencies to pursue civil charges. They don’t need to address intent or prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead they only need to show someone failed to follow the rules, and they only need a preponderance of evidence. In other words, they only need to prove their case more effectively than the defendant challenges it.
Some actions may result in both criminal and civil charges
The criminal and civil charges that the EPA and OSHA level against rules breakers may not help victims directly. However, it is still possible for the victims of asbestos exposure to sue even if a company has already been convicted of a crime. In fact, such a conviction could strengthen the victim’s case.
The law prevents defendants from facing double jeopardy for criminal charges, meaning they can’t be charged twice for the same incident. However, the law does not prevent those charged with a crime from also facing civil charges. Nor does it prevent multiple victims from filing for damages that owe to the same action.
In the case of the Springfield YMCA, this means the Attorney General may have put some people on alert. Her reference to the YMCA’s “workers, occupants, and the surrounding community” reads a bit like a list of potential victims.
The problem of timing
The people connected to and living near the Springfield YMCA may want to take notice of the legal action. Still, their interest is not likely to be in filing a civil suit, at least not now. Most asbestos-related diseases take years or decades to develop. In fact, even though most people diagnosed with mesothelioma suffered their exposure at work, the average age for a diagnosis is 72 years.
Instead, criminal and civil asbestos charges can serve as an alert. They can use their knowledge of possible asbestos exposure to focus on detecting and preventing any resulting diseases. People who catch mesothelioma early tend to fare much better, and informing your doctor about any possible asbestos exposure is important to early detection.