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How Agent Orange Worked


Agent Orange Lawsuits and Reparations
Vietnamese civilians exposed to Agent Orange and others head to U.S. court in June 2007 in New York.
Vietnamese civilians exposed to Agent Orange and others head to U.S. court in June 2007 in New York.
Stan Honda/AFP/­Getty Images

­American and Vietnamese plaintiffs have filed numerous lawsuits in U.S. courts seeking compensation for exposure to Agent Orange. To protect itself from claims of wrongdoing, the U.S. government has used the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which dictates that a government can't be sued, even in cases of alleged negligence. In lawsuits against the United States dealing with atomic testing and Agent Orange, the Supreme Court has upheld the legality of sovereign immunity.

The 1946 Tort Claims Act placed restrictions on sovereign immunity, but some loopholes have been carved out based on the wording of the law and subsequent Supreme Court decisions. The law protects against "discretionary" acts by the government, and the Supreme Court has ruled against plaintiffs in cases affecting military veterans [source: Taylor].

Some lawsuits have accused chemical companies of war crimes for selling Agent Orange to the military. These lawsuits generally claim that companies such as Dow, Monsanto, Hercules and Diamond Shamrock knew more than they revealed at the time about the dangers of the herbicide. In 1984, a massive class-action lawsuit was settled in U.S. court. Seven U.S. compa­nies agreed to pay a total of $180 million to 291,000 people, mostly Vietnam War veterans [source: Glaberson]. The final settlement, including interest, was around $240 million [source: AP].

Other lawsuits have appeared after that major settlement. Some of these plaintiffs say that they missed out on the first class-action suit. Others say that they have a right to sue because more information is now available about the dangers of Agent Orange and dioxin. In their defense, chemical companies usually offer some of the following claims [source: Glaberson]:

  • The government ordered them to produce Agent Orange.
  • Too much time has passed since its use for people to claim reparations.
  • The connection is uncertain between Agent Orange and health problems.
  • Vietnamese claims should be settled by the U.S. government.

­In recent Agent Orange lawsuits, courts have ruled that chemical companies aren't liable because they were government contractors [source: Graybow]. One attorney, representing Vietnamese plaintiffs, said that these decisions may herald the end of Agent Orange-related lawsuits. But human rights and victims groups continue to lobby the U.S. to pay for dioxin cleanup in Vietnam, citing the precedent of the U.S. government paying for mine removal in Vietnam.