On May 3, 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) agreed to hear an appeal in Ciment St-Laurent inc. v. Barrette (St. Lawrence Cement). This is the first time the SCC will hear an environmental class action originating from Québec. The decision will also serve as a guide to Québec courts in these industries and have significant ramifications for businesses operating in Québec and throughout Canada.
In this case, a group of occupants or owners of residences located near a cement factory in the Québec City area initiated a class action. The members alleged that the business was at fault in operating its plant and that it failed to act in a good neighbourly fashion. They claimed damages for harm suffered due to dust, noise and odours which, according to the members, had reached excessive levels.
At trial, the Québec Superior Court granted relief, although it held that the cement factory had not been guilty of any wrongdoing. The court held the view that the cement plant, as a result of its operations, had caused abnormal inconvenience exceeding tolerable limits. Consequently, it had to be held liable, in the absence of any wrongdoing, pursuant to the applicable rules in matters of private nuisance provided for in Article 976 C.C.Q.
The Court of Appeal of Québec (CAQ) reversed the decision of the Superior Court on this point, unanimously holding that the liability scheme for nuisance claims did not create a personal right of action and could not be the basis for a class action. The CAQ also held that liability could not exist without wrongdoing. The mere evidence of abnormal inconvenience (which, essentially, stems from a subjective appreciation of said inconvenience) was insufficient.
The CAQ decided that Article 976 C.C.Q. could not be the basis for a class action since this provision, in its opinion, creates rights in rem. A class action, by contrast, is a procedural vehicle created exclusively to enable the exercise of personal rights.
After revisiting the evidence, the CAQ reversed the decision of the Superior Court that the cement plant was not guilty of any wrongdoing. In so doing, the CAQ laid down a principle stating that any business must maintain its anti-pollution equipment in optimal working condition at all times during production. In this respect, the CAQ attached greater significance to the compliance or lack of compliance by the business with the statutory duties provided for in the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) and, in particular, Section 12 of the Regulation respecting the application of the Environmental Quality Act (Regulation). On this basis, the CAQ held that the action taken by St. Lawrence Cement was insufficient and that it was guilty of wrongdoing.
McCarthy Tétrault Notes:
Although the fact situation originated in Québec, the decision goes beyond the borders of this province, raising issues of national importance such as the protection of the environment and an analysis of the liability of businesses. Specifically, it raises the significant issues of:
- potential liability of a business for having caused environmental nuisance to its neighbours;
- the extent to which legislative standards in environmental matters are relevant to assessing such liability; and
- the role class actions play in environmental disputes