Environmental risks and harms are increasingly the subject of news reports. We’ve seen people’s water sources allegedly contaminated with carcinogens, our food sources jeopardised due to biosecurity risks and natural disasters cause death and destruction to people’s homes and livelihoods.
Environmental class actions can, however, provide redress to victims who suffer personal injury, economic loss or damage to their property. In this way, through the significant financial impact that environmental class actions have, they also play an important role in deterring environmental wrongdoers and protecting the environment.
For a claim to be run as a class action in Australia, there must be seven or more people with claims against the same defendant, the claims must be in respect of or arise out of, the same, similar or related conduct and there must be at least one substantial common factual or legal issue.
Environmental Class Action Categories
A review of case law suggests that environmental class actions can fall into the following broad categories:
- Biosecurity class actions – claiming compensation as a result of damage related to a biosecurity breach;
- Land contamination class actions – claiming compensation as a result of contamination to land;
- Disaster class actions – examples include bushfire class actions and a class action following the 2-week shutdown to most of Victoria’s gas supply following the Esso Longford gas plant explosion;
- Mining damage class actions – claiming compensation for contamination/damage to property and remediation arising from mining operations;
- Food contamination class actions – these claims generally relate to personal injury due to environmental contamination which has affected food;
- “Failure to regulate” class actions – claims against government or regulatory bodies such as state-based environmental protection agencies where the government body has not directly caused the harm but rather their regulatory failure has caused it, or failed to mitigate it; and
- Environmental shareholder class actions – these are uncharted territory but are another potential category of environmental class action.
Environmental Class Action Cases
Manisha Blencowe, Practice Group Leader, who was involved in a landmark case that settled for $23.5 million brought on behalf of home owners affected by high levels of methane from a disused landfill says that environmental class actions are an important way that people can access justice in relation to environmental damage.
“Class actions provide a cost effective way for multiple people affected by similar harms to join together to receive compensation related to environmental damage.”
Ben Hardwick, Head of Class Actions and Industrial, who was involved in a high profile class action against BHP on behalf of Papua New Guineans who allegedly suffered due to BHP’s mining operations agrees, “in a world where environmental pollution, damage and harm is prolific, as class action lawyers, we have an important role to play in ensuring that individuals who suffer due to environmental harms are able to receive compensation and, in doing, help to deter environmental wrongdoers.”
To read more about environmental class actions and the role that they have played in the Australian legal landscape, download Manisha Blencowe, Ben Hardwick and Hannah Lewis’ paper that was published in the January edition of the Australian Environment Review with the citation Manisha Blencowe, Ben Hardwick and Hannah Lewis, “Carving out the role for environmental class actions” (2018) 32 Australian Environment Review 210, 237-242.
If you think you may have suffered due to environmental damage, we encourage you to get in contact with new client services on 1800 555 777 who can assist you to look into what rights you might have in regard to the damage or loss you’ve suffered.