Lawyers for two environmental groups will be intervening at the Supreme Court of Canada today, challenging a controversial Quebec Court of Appeal decision that could impair the rights of citizens to launch class action lawsuits over environmental harm.
Represented by pro bono counsel from Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) and the firm of Lauzon Bélanger, the Quebec Environmental Law Centre and Friends of the Earth Canada will be intervening in the landmark St. Lawrence Cement Inc. v. Barrette case.
The lawsuit began as a class action brought by neighbours of a controversial Quebec City cement factory, which operated for 42 years. The neighbours sought compensation for damage caused by the factory’s operation, including decades of noise, odour, and dust problems.
The Quebec Superior Court upheld their claim and ordered St. Lawrence Cement to pay $15 million in damages. However, the Quebec Court of Appeal reversed this decision, concluding that nuisance claims could not be brought as class action lawsuits, and that the right to bring such claims was limited to property owners, as opposed to tenants or the spouses and children of owners. This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal’s decision surprised many legal observers, as it runs counter to the principle of enhanced access to justice. “By limiting the availability of the class action procedure in environmental nuisance cases, an important environmental protection tool for ordinary Canadians was undermined,” said Will Amos, lawyer from the uOttawa-Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic who will be arguing the case.
Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada added, “We are intervening to ensure that access to environmental justice is protected and promoted both in Québec and in the rest of Canada.”
The case will also highlight the broader issue of how and when individual citizens can bring private nuisance lawsuits to protect their environment, in particular when industrial emission regulations provide inadequate protection for neighbouring homes, or when government regulators do not effectively enforce the law.
“Although Canadians want and expect their governments to control industry’s pollution, there are gaps in local standards and implementation measures that must be overcome,” stated Michel Bélanger, counsel at Lauzon Bélanger in Montreal.
“There is still a role to be played by ordinary Canadians in bringing environmental nuisance claims,” said Jean-Francois Girard, Director of the Quebec Centre for Environmental Law. “This area of law must be interpreted according to the principles of polluter-pays and environmental cost internalization.”