Taking Back the Academy! History of Activism, History as Activism

By Jim Downs; Jennifer Manion | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8

Toxic Torts

Historians in the Courtroom

DAVID ROSNER

During the past number of years, historians have been brought into legal cases in unprecedented numbers. As the courts have tried to adjudicate responsibility for environmental and occupational diseases, history has played a more and more central role in decisions that affect the cases themselves and social policy regarding risk.

In suits over tobacco-related diseases, asbestosis, radiation experiments, and other toxic tort situations, more and more historians of technology and sciences, social history and public health are being brought to provide testimony aimed at assessing responsibility for risk for a variety of nasty diseases and conditions that have arisen years, sometimes decades, after exposure. The basic questions asked are those we became familiar with during the Watergate hearings: who knew what about specific toxins and when did they know it? Did industry understand that specific substances could cause disease? If so, when did they learn of the dangers and when did they begin to warn their workers or consumers of their products that they were at risk?

This chapter will look at the recent recruitment of historians into the world of toxic tort law and examine the ways that the craft of history is used and abused in the legal system, and will identify the important ways that historians' skills can be used on behalf of people victimized by a variety of industries as well as the ways that these same skills can be abused in order to defend the activities of huge corporations. I do not intend to provide a dispassionate analysis of the moral, ethical and legal dilemmas that

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