Issues of Legal Liability for Sanitarians

By Sikora, Vincent A. | Journal of Environmental Health, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Issues of Legal Liability for Sanitarians


Sikora, Vincent A., Journal of Environmental Health


Editor's note: From members who want to understand the legal issues that can arise in the environmental health profession, NEHA repeatedly receives requests for a legal column in the Journal Some of these requests come from longtime NEHA members who remember and periodically refer to a column by Dr Vincent Sikora titled "Law for Environmentalists," which the "journal published from 1979 to 1985. We have been taking these requests and the reasons for them seriously; NEHA has twice come close to finding an author with the appropriate knowledge, experience, and commitment to write such a column. In those instances, however, the columns submitted either were in short supply (and could therefore not be published with sufficient regularity) or were not properly targeted to environmental health professionals. So when NEHA received a letter from Dr. Sikora last month in which he offered to write a column about legal issues for the Journal again we couldn't have been more thrilled. The new column has been titled "Legal Briefs and it will consist of short case studies about topics relevant to environmental health professionals in a wide variety of settings. Legal Briefs will appear in every other issue of the Journal.

Do environmental health professionals in public employment, or their employers, have any liability for their work? That question has worried us for decades.

The eminent public-health law professor Frank Grad said in 1990, "It is difficult to understand why the subject of public health officers' liability exerts such fascination unless it is because of the link between the public health profession and medical malpractice." Building on that observation, a recent Journal article concluded, "Environmental health work need not include nagging worries about getting sued" (Briley, Fowler, & Teel, 2000). The impression given is that environmental health professionals should have no civil liability and cannot be sued. While both the statements quoted above are accurate in certain contexts, neither tells the complete story-that environmental health professionals and their employers may have liability problems.

The two cases discussed this month concern liability for improperly designed on-site sewage-disposal systems in Louisiana and North Carolina. Regardless of your state law, the cases show the critical importance of knowledge, thoroughness, and professionalism.

Case 1: Judgement Against Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals for Improperly Designed Septic System

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals was ordered by the Court of Appeals to pay a family $30,663.33 because an improperly designed on-site septic system was installed on the property of the family's neighbors. In Smith v. Cutts, the court ordered the installer and septic-system owner to pay an additional $61,326.66 to the family.

The Cutts used a septic tank whose field lines ran to an adjoining vacant lot in their subdivision. In 1994, the system failed, and once the sewage reached the ground surface, it flowed downhill to the neighbors, the Smiths. Mr. Smith filed a complaint with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Office of Public Health, the agency responsible for on-site sewage disposal.

The department recommended an individual sewage-treatment plant and issued a permit for one to the Cutts. A plant was installed in November 1994 according to the department's permit and specifications. Under the Department's directive, the discharge from the plant went to a roadside ditch maintained by the Rapides Parish (the equivalent of a county elsewhere). The ditch ran in front of the Smiths' house. Generally, the plant was operated according to state requirements. Both the property owners and the installer believed that once the Louisiana Office of Public Health had issued the permit and the work had been done in strict compliance with the permit conditions, nothing further was necessary. …

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