Victor J. Yannacone, Jr.: Father Of Environmental Law


By Karl Grossman

Victor J. Yannacone Jr., the lawyer who coined the term and created the legal field of environmental law, and for decades was based across the bay from Fire Island in Patchogue, is in another lovely setting.

“So now we’re stuck here in paradise,” Yannacone was saying from the Hawaii island of Maui the other day. Yannacone and his wife, Carol, had gone to visit their son, Victor J. Yannacone III, for Thanksgiving in 2019.

“We were going to stay to April or May,” he related. And then “the epidemic hit, and we were quarantined. We never got home.”

And, at 85 with serious arthritis, “I don’t want to get on an airplane” with this underlying condition and fly back. So, they remain in paradise.

Yannacone, a colorful, feisty attorney with a long career in the law in Suffolk County, remains involved in legal matters here. “I’ve been doing civil rights law” from Hawaii, including working with attorney Cory H. Morris whose practice is in Melville.

It was in Suffolk, notes Yannacone’s website,, that he “coined the phrase and created the field of Environmental Law during the litigation over DDT during the 1960s.” Pioneered by Yannacone, it’s now a legal specialty globally.

Some five decades ago, Yannacone brought a lawsuit in the name of his wife, Carol, joined in by a group of prominent Suffolk environmentalists including Art Cooley, Dennis Puleston, Dr. George Woodwell, Dr. Charles Wurster, Dr. Robert Smolker and Anthony Taormina to stop the then Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission from spraying DDT.

The result was an end to DDT use in Suffolk and later it was banned across the United States. The Suffolk group behind the lawsuit became a national organization, the Environmental Defense Fund.

“It was June 1966 in the New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, in Riverhead, when the first round of what later would be called the DDT wars began,” Yannacone has recounted to me. “The suit was aimed at prohibiting the county commission from any further use of  DDT, an action brought individually and on behalf of all those entitled to the full benefit and use of the unique natural resource treasures of Suffolk County, without degradation from the impact of broad spectrum persistent chemical biocides like DDT.”

The judge in the case, the late Justice D. Ormonde Ritchie, asked what’s the basis for this lawsuit? “Environmental law,” was Yannacone’s reply.

The New York Times and other newspapers described it as involving a new concept of law in their accounts of the case.

Yannacone would go on and write the two-volume treatise “Environmental Rights & Remedies,” to establish the Environmental Law Section of the American Trial Association, and to give presentations through the years on environmental law around the U.S. and the world.

Among his presentations was what became known as his “Sue the bastards speech,” delivered in 1968 at a convention of the National Audubon Society.

“I called on National Audubon to follow in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and knock on courthouses across the land and seek justice for the environment: the air we breathe and the water we drink, and diverse populations of plants and animals on which human life and society depend,” Yannacone recalled.

In 1994, he both resided and had his law practice in Patchogue,  and was elected Patchogue village justice. He remained on the bench through 2002 and adjudicated more than 8,000 cases according to his website.

Moreover, he was an attorney in litigation involving challenges to the Long Island Lighting Company’s Shoreham nuclear power plant – one of multiple nuclear plants LILCO sought to build in Suffolk County. Only one was constructed, in Shoreham, but it was stopped from going into commercial operation by grassroots opposition and by actions by Suffolk County and New York State governments.

Yannacone was also an attorney in the lawsuit brought by veterans who were victims of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The class action suit was settled in 1974 for $180 million, the highest settlement in the history of U.S. jurisprudence at the time. He was joined in that fight by the late Irving Like of Bay Shore, who with his wife, Margalit, and their children, also long resided in Dunewood on Fire Island.

Yannacone established the Brookhaven Town Council on the Arts and also the Brookhaven Town Symphony Orchestra. And on top of everything else, Yannacone was an active baritone saxophone musician performing with it and other musical groups among them The Symphonic Band of Suffolk and Big Band East.

Indeed, the “only thing I miss getting old,” commented Yannacone from Hawaii, is that “my arthritis has gotten so bad I can’t play any longer.” As for his baritone saxophone, “I’ve passed it on to my grandson.” His grandson, Ronan, is 17. Ronan, his sister, Tegan, and their parents, Victor’s daughter, Claire Yannacone, and her husband and their father, Nobby Peers, live in Patchogue.