It is well known that lead and in particular tetraethyl lead (the antiknock compound added to gasoline) can profoundly affect the central nervous system -- indeed, if people are worried about water pipes, leaded gasoline would, since the lead after combustion gets widely distributed and despite its being phased out years ago, soil levels of lead remain high in some places.

Doctors in the 1920s expressed concern but the companies that made gasoline funded studies (on goats of all things) that "demonstrated" it was not harmful and after a pause, the additive was allowed to be used. It is suggested that the effects included a loss on average to every human of six IQ points. This is obviously hard to prove precisely, but imagine that in practice this meant that people who were at the low end of the scale might have needed to be institutionalized when they otherwise might have been able to live independently.

What the reasons that such a lawsuit has not been attempted or if one has, why it did not apparently succeed?

The companies which made the additive still exist because tetra ethyl lead is still used in some countries and even in the USA in aviation fuel. And certainly the companies which make gasoline and added the compound to the fuel they sold continue to thrive.

2 Answers 2


Overcoming statutes of limitations, and proving that the health conditions that someone is suffering were caused by leaded gasoline, would be extremely daunting barriers to any lawsuit against vendors of leaded gasoline.

Since February 1975, regular gasoline has not included lead; in 1986, gasoline for on-road vehicles became completely lead-free. (Source)

This means that 37 years has passed since the last exposure to leaded gasoline from cars. And, of course, leaded gasoline was banned because, quite a few years before then, its public health harms were known with sufficient certainty to start the regulatory process.

Depending upon the state, product liability statutes of limitations are typically two to seven years from when the "cause of action accrues." A statute of limitations generally begins to run in a product liability case when an injury is suffered and its cause is known.

And, prior to the asbestos liability cases, it wasn't at all clear that you could prove a product liability case without tying you specific injury to one specific defendant, rather than attributing the injuries of a whole class of plaintiffs to a whole industry, and then allocating damages or settlement payments in proportion to the market shares of various defendants.

The availability of industry-wide market share liability in products liability cases, while ordered in a couple of outlier cases, was still in doubt and controversial (see, e.g., law review articles from 1974 and 1979 and 1999), through the 1980s, and received little traction in the 1990s as well.

Even now, while it has been applied in some class action settlements, only a handful of outlier cases in the entire United States have applied this theory in liability rulings on the merits that have been affirmed on appeal.

New York State was one of the first states in which an appellate court decision in 1989 affirmed a market share products liability theory in the case of Hymowitz v. Eli Lilly and Company, 73 N.Y.2d 487, 539 N.E.2d 1069, 541 N.Y.S.2d 941 (1989). This case involved liability for the drug DES:

DES is a synthetic estrogen that was created in England and ultimately marketed in the United States from the late 1940s until approximately 1971 as an anti-miscarriage drug. It was administered to pregnant women with a history of miscarriage or threatened miscarriage. In the 1970s, claims arose that the drug crossed the placenta of the in utero child, causing various medical problems including uterine cancer, infertility and pregnancy outcome problems as adults or adolescents.

As of a 1999 law review article's publication:

Even though the Hymowitz Court stated that the "DES situation is a singular case with manufacturers acting in a parallel manner to produce an identical, generically marketed product, which causes injury many years later,"" plaintiffs in New York have argued that market share liability should be extended to embrace other products liability cases, including asbestos, handguns, silicone breast implants and lead paint. All attempts to extend the doctrine in New York to products other than DES, however, have failed or met with inconclusive results. . . . Attempts to extend market share liability to asbestos cases have generally failed to date, with the cases citing great differences in the qualities of asbestos and DES.

Some states, such as Georgia, have statutorily rejected this theory, and others have adopted case law expressly rejecting the theory.

But without an industry-wide market share theory of recovery, it almost impossible to bring a product liability lawsuit related to leaded gasoline exposure, even if you can prove that a recently discovered injury was definitely caused by leaded gasoline. This is because a person ordinarily buys gasoline from many companies selling almost identical products. Even if someone grew up in a small town with only one leaded gasoline provider, proving that this was the predominant source of lead exposure several decades later is very challenging.

But the more remote the exposure is from the effects, the harder it is to show definitively that your particular symptoms were caused by leaded gasoline exposure.

It is one thing to show that statistically, leaded gasoline has a negative public health effect, and quite another to be able to prove that it is more likely than not that a particular person's health issues were caused by leaded gasoline.

The fact that virtually everyone was exposed to leaded gasoline fumes also makes determining that there was an injury caused by leaded gasoline challenging. So does the fact that there were other sources of lead exposure, like lead pipes and lead paint and lead from bullets used for hunting that can impact hunted game meat, confound the task of clearly establishing that an injury was caused by leaded gasoline rather than from other sources of lead exposure.

Also, since the effects of leaded gasoline are heavily weighted to cognitive impairment, which can't be definitely determined from an X-ray or definitive physical symptom upon examination in many cases, and cognitive impairment is older age can come from many different causes, proving that someone has suffered an injury at all, from any cause, can be challenging.

  • 2
    "in 1986, gasoline for on-road vehicles became completely lead-free" The US phase-out began in 1986. Leaded gas was available for cars, depending on state, until 1996.
    – user71659
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:55
  • @user71659 I was just relying on my source. But, that's still 27 years ago.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 1, 2023 at 21:04
  • 1
    That's referring to Japan. The article says "In the United States and Germany, the final phase-out of leaded fuel came in 1996." The other issue is as the OP noted, aviation gas is leaded today, high lead levels have been detected around airports, and just recently the EPA has issued an endangerment finding. I am willing to bet there is going to be litigation over that.
    – user71659
    Dec 1, 2023 at 21:23

For normal vehicle gas the ship sailed [before] 2010 in the

Leaded gasoline was finally banned from being sold (for car usage) in 1996. As a result, the last legal sale was on 31.12.1995, even though phasing out had started more than 30 years before. Anyway, the last legal act of sale of leaded gasoline happened by now 27 years ago.

The Statute of limitations for a federal crime (but murder) is typically 5 years, and that is all you get. The longest product liability you can get anywhere is 15 years in Iowa in a case where the Statue of Repose matters, but a personal injury case is to be brought at best after 6 years after the inury is known and within the statute of repose.

Assuming someone sold leaded gasoline on new years eve 1995 to 1996 in Iowa, the statute of repose ended 15 years later, new years eve 2010.

As a result, even the absolute longest statute of limitation ran not once but multiple times. No court is allowed to take the case.

  • so not suggesting, except i guess for aviation fuel, that a lawsuit now be undertaken but why was one not taken before? is it the difficulty in establishing neurological impairment vs physical injury even though it has been long known how toxic lead is? are companies free to poison humanity as long as it only damages our brains??
    – releseabe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 1:15

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