Finding Liability for “Disease Clusters”

If you’ve ever had to deal with multiple members of your household struck with the flu or a bad cold at the same time, the phrase “disease cluster” might sound horrifyingly familiar! In medical terms, a disease cluster is when there is an abnormally high number of cases of the same disease or condition within a specific area. They tend to occur in places where people frequently interact with others.

What is a Disease Cluster?

Many types of illnesses and conditions, from whooping cough to HIV, can occur in clusters. Often, they concern diseases that spread through basic human contact. Other times, the cause is an area’s location, like a town’s proximity to a nuclear power plant. Societal standards, like the taboo of talking about STDs in a very religious area, might also play a role.

When someone spreads a disease throughout their cluster, it is typically unintentional. This is why there is generally not any legal action taken on cases that involve infectious diseases.  You probably aren’t going to successfully sue you coworker for spreading the flu. But when the cause is an outside factor, like toxins, the victims might have legal options.

Legal Options

The first step is to prove that the cluster really exists. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), factors to consider include:

  • the type of illness
  • the age of the victims
  • the lifestyles and hobbies of the victims
  • family history
  • the time frame in which the illnesses occurred

For example, if three women in the same office have breast cancer, it might seem like a cluster, until you consider that all three women are also smokers with a family history of breast cancer. In a case like this, it might just be an unfortunate coincidence.

The next step is determining what exactly is causing the disease or illness. To determine if a disease was caused by a certain factor or substance, like asbestos in an old building or lead in a local water supply, vigorous testing is required. This means it can take a long time to figure out what is causing the issue.

Disease Cluster Lawsuits

Since they can be so complex, disease cluster lawsuits are relatively rare. However, they do occur.  In one example of a disease cluster lawsuit, a group in West Palm Beach sued a jet engine manufacturing company after numerous members of their community were diagnosed with brain tumors. They claimed that the company’s nearby manufacturing plant was spilling toxins into their soil, which lead to the cancer. Though the lawsuit has yet to be resolved, a federal judge did rule that all 50,000 residents of the community are potential beneficiaries of any compensation.

Cancer Cluster at Auburn University?

A similar situation might soon play out over an alleged disease cluster originating in Auburn, Alabama. 38 people, who all attended Auburn University between 1983 and 2001, were diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a type of eye cancer. Considering that ocular melanoma only affects one in every six million people, the fact that 38 people have it is shocking. It also potentially points to a deeply-rooted issue. While no judgments have been made on a cause, the rareness of the cancer seems to suggest that an outside factor, like asbestos, played a role. It’s also unknown whether or not the victims will file a class action lawsuit or take legal actions. But if they do take legal actions, they would not be the first to do so.

The idea of a disease cluster is scary, particularly when an invisible or unknown factor causes a serious illness. But for the victims of such events, relief and compensation is out there. And for those who haven’t been affected, it’s just another reminder to always look out for your health.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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