The 10 Most High Profile Environmental Cases

With business playing such a vital role in protecting and maintaining the health of our environment, court cases aimed at improving environmental behaviour can set important precedents and standards.

Over the years, a number of environmental and commercial court cases have grown into important milestones in the field of environmental law, setting standards for a variety of issues ranging from genetic modification to property rights in a time of war.

The 10 cases highlighted in this article cover a wide variety of topics ranging from patents to environmental destruction. Each case has had a huge effect on the field of environmental law, setting standards for years – often decades – to follow.

1.Aldred’s Case, 1610

While the environmental concerns of the 17th century were largely unrelated to the issues our courts deal with today, this interesting case from 1610 is important due to its role in the creation of environmental law.

In 1610, William Aldred claimed to the court that his neighbour, Mr Thomas Benton, had erected a pig sty so close to his property that his home had become “unbearable to live in.” The court ruled in his favour, noting that the intense smell of the pigsty deprived Aldred of his personal dignity and was a violation of his rights.

2.Deepwater Horizon Litigation, Ongoing

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was a catastrophic environmental distaste for the United States, resulting in widespread pollution throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico region.

Several major claims and class action lawsuits were filed following the spill, with a large number of these still making their way through the courts. BP has set aside an emergency lawsuit fund of $37.2 billion to settle the claims, although many believe the oil company will end up spending significantly more in total.

3.Burmah Oil Co. v Lord Advocate, 1965 

This interesting case, regarding the destruction of oil fields in Burma during World War II, had interesting repercussions for the UK legal system. To stop the advancing Japanese forces from using oil resources, British forces destroyed a large group of oil fields belonging to the Burmah Oil Company.

The House of Lords held that despite being lawful, the damage to the oil fields was such that the Burmah Oil Company should be compensated. This decision was later reversed as the War Damage Act 1965 retroactively exempted the Crown from any liability related to legal wartime damages.

4.United States v. The Progressive, 1979

In 1979, a left-wing political magazine became the target of a United States lawsuit after it attempted to publish an article containing the “secret” method used to build a hydrogen bomb. Although the information was available publicly, the Department of Energy believed that publishing it violated the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

The United States eventually dropped its case against the magazine, allowing it to publish the article as planned. The inconclusive case remains a hot topic in many of the world’s top law schools, with some experts arguing that publishing the “secret” information made it accessible to rogue states.

5.Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker

This interesting case related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Unlike other oil spill cases, which resulted in increased damages against oil companies, this case resulted in a significant reduction of the punitive damages awarded to people affected by the oil spill.

The punitive damaged were reduced from $2.5 billion to just $500 million by a 5-3 margin after the Supreme Court of the United States found that Exxon could be held liable for the conduct of the ship’s drunken captain, but that punitive damages could not exceed the total amount that Exxon had spent settling economic losses.

6.McDonald’s Corporation v Steel & Morris, 1997 (The McLibel Case)

This drawn out lawsuit between McDonald’s and environmental campaigners Helen Steel and Dave Morris resulted in no victories. Although McDonald’s won a £40,000 settlement from the two activists – who had published a partially libellous brochure about the fast food chain – it lost significant more income in bad publicity.

The case began in 1986 and ended in 1997, after the court found that the brochure created by London Greenpeace and distributed by the two activists used incorrect information to libel McDonald’s. Despite the victory, analysts believe that the case resulted in far more bad publicity for McDonald’s than the activists’ brochure.

7.The Trafigura Case, 2009

After details emerged in parliamentary debate showing that Dutch multinational firm Trafigura had been involved in a toxic waste dump in Cote d’Ivoire that had resulted in several deaths, the company wasted no time in preventing documents from the Netherlands Forensic Institute from becoming public.

The “super-injunction” preventing the publication of information brought far more attention to the company than the initial news report, leading to a massive amount of online activity. In 2012, a report from Amnesty International claimed that deaths were Trafigura’s responsibility – the company later paid a fine to the Netherlands.

8.Carter v. Carter Coal Company, 1936

This mid-20th century case was instrumental in determining the rights of the United States government to regulate commerce between states. A 1935 law requested coal mining companies in the United States to pay a 15% tax, of which 90 per cent would be refunded for compliance.

James W. Carter, a major shareholder in the Carter Coal Company, sued the company after he disagreed with their approval of the tax. The United States Supreme Court found that the government did not have the right to regulate commodities sold in interstate commerce before their sale occurs.

9.Sierra Club v. Morton, 1972

This landmark case played an important role in the development of laws regarding standing in environmental court cases. After development was allowed in Mineral King – an area close to Sequoia National Park in California – the park’s members sued to block the development permit from being issued.

Although the Sierra Club’s members lost the case due to a failure to disclose their involvement in the area under development, the development was cancelled and most of the area proposed for development was made part of the Sequoia National Park.

10.Partridge v. Crittenden, 1968

This interesting case involved the use of classified ads to sell – albeit implicitly – a wild, non-bred bird to a mail order customer. The advertisement was for a certain type of brambling and was carefully worded to avoid mentioning that the bird was actually for sale.

After the seller posted a bird to a customer, the Magistrates’ Court found that the advertisement was an “invitation to treat” – an implicit statement that the birds were for sale – and thus was illegal. While the ramifications of the case remain important, the stakes were not – Partridge was fined just £9 for his crime.

This article was written by Vannin Capital. Visit their website today to find out more about funding a legal case.

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