As of November 20th, 2008, the date on which the Supreme Court rendered its judgment in St. Lawrence Cement Inc. v. Barrette, a company will be held liable when it causes its neighbours to suffer abnormal disturbances, despite being in strict compliance with all environmental standards and having installed the best industrial equipment for pollution reduction.

Review of the facts

The case originates in 1955 when a producer of cementitious products began operations at its cement plant in Beauport. Citizens residing close to the cement plant complained of problems involving dust, odours and noise from the very beginning of operations. The problems raised remained unsolved and in 1994 two plaintiffs instituted a class action lawsuit in the name of the residents of the areas surrounding the cement plant, alleging that the operation of the cement plant was causing them damages over and beyond normal neighbourhood annoyances.

The plaintiffs founded their claim, notably, on article 976 of the Civil Code of Québec, which provides that neighbours must accept normal neighbourhood annoyances that are not beyond the limit of tolerance they owe each other.

The Supreme Court confirms the existence of a scheme of no-fault liability with respect to neighbourhood disturbances

The Supreme Court decision is clear: article 976 of the Civil Code of Québec does not require evidence of wrongful conduct to establish the liability of an owner who has caused excessive neighbourhood annoyances. Evidence of abnormal annoyances suffered by a neighbour on its own will suffice to establish a company’s liability.

According to the Supreme Court, a study of the relevant legislative history, case law and commentaries supports the recognition of a scheme of liability based on abnormal neighbourhood disturbances despite the lack of either proof or presumption of wrongful conduct. Consequently, it is not the behaviour that must be analyzed, but rather the results thereof, such that in the event where neighbours should suffer abnormal disturbances exceeding the limits of tolerance, there is liability even without wrongful conduct. The Supreme Court noted that a scheme of no-fault liability promoted environmental protection objectives.

The Supreme Court thus ordered the appellant to pay $15,000,000 for neighbourhood annoyances brought about by the regular operation of the cement plant, as had been determined by the trial judge.

Impacts on industrialists

From now on, companies will not only have to respect environmental legislation and abide by all authorizations (certificate of authorization) issued to them, they will also have to ensure that their activities do not cause abnormal disturbances to their neighbours.

We wish to stress the fact that the fact that these companies may have established themselves many years before the arrival of those who complain of the disturbances appears to have no impact on the liability of these companies.

Companies operating plants producing emissions of dust, noise or odours must therefore increase their preventative measures in order to avoid future lawsuits involving neighbourhood disturbances and some financial institutions will seek assurances with regards to the status of their clients’ relations with their neighbours.