Neighbours trip up big industry with Antwerp judgment holding 3M to account for (common law) nuisance following PFAS pollution.

On 15 May an Antwerp justice of the peace (effectively a first instance judge in ia neighbourly disputes) has issued a common sense, no nonsense judgment against 3M’s pollution for its PFAS pollution of the soil around its manufacturing site at the Port of Antwerp. (For background to PFAS aka per and polyfluoroalkyl substances see also my earlier post on applicable law). PFAS produced there were mainly used in fire extinguishing foam.

Bypassing the sluggish criminal law and public law investigations and enquiries, and in view of alarming levels of PFAS found in the family’s blood, two immediate neighbours at the site claim against 3M on the basis of what is effectively common law nuisance. Such a claim is one of strict liability: it does not seek to establish fault or negligence, rather it aims at addressing the imbalance in proprietary enjoyment.

The judgment reminds us that the historic roots of many an environmental law (think Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330 and later Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc [1994] 1 All ER 53 ) are still good law despite the overwhelming body of local, regional, federal, EU and international environmental statutory laws.

3M (other than to internal civil procedure rules on the court’s jurisdiction) referred ia to its environmental permit and to its use of ‘state of the art environmental technologies; to the distinction between the statutory remediation duty on the one hand and the liability for pollution, on the other; to its voluntary phasing out of PFAS at the site, and to the soil remediation (negotiated with /imposed by the Flemish authorities) it will carry out ia on the claimants’ property ; to the inconclusiveness of data on long-term health impact; and to the need to at the least stay the case in light of ongoing criminal and public law investigations.

The judge held that claimants’ individual rights exist independently of public and criminal procedures and may be enforced separately, and that all four elements for the laws of nuisance are present:

Neighbourliness (the only element not contested by 3M);

Nuisance. For the existence of nuisance, the judge referred ia to statements aka ‘extrajudicial confessions’ made by 3M executives during hearings in the Flemish Parliament;

Excessive nuisance. The nuisance is also held to be excessive, with simple reference ia to clearly abnormal PFAS readings in claimants’ blood;

Attributable to 3M. Here, too, the judge holds straightforwardly: ia mapping ordered by the Flemish Government shows a clear concentration of PFAS on the sites run by 3M.

The judge concludes with a provisional statement of €2,000 damages for the reduced enjoyment by claimants of their property.

The judgment does not indicate the parameters to be used for final determination of damages. Early commentary on the judgment indicates a number of open questions, such as the parameter within which claimants can be considered to be ‘neighbours’, etc. It is clear that 3M will not just appeal, but will generally continue its approach of litigating each and every claim (of note is that Belgium’s collective proceedings provisions are not optimal, and moreover difficult to apply to common law nuisance cases) with convoluted legal reasoning and much distinguishing. Yet the judgment is appealing in its straightforwardness and no doubt inspiring to the many proceedings which, sadly, are en route in this sad episode of industrial ‘innovation’.



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