Court finds Corby Council negligent in landmark pollution case

Catching up on council news from outside my home patch of London*, here’s a report from The Guardian:

A group of young people who claim an “atmospheric soup of toxic materials” released when an old steelworks was redeveloped caused their birth defects won a landmark ruling today when it was found that the local council had been negligent in its handling of the site.

The high court decision clears the way for 16 successful claimants, who are aged between 11 and 22 and have missing or underdeveloped fingers or deformities to their feet, to set out to prove their individual disabilities were caused by Corby borough council’s failings when reclaiming the former British Steel plant. Compensation could run into millions of pounds if they succeed…

The council said it was not prepared to apologise unless a causal link was proved between the reclamation works and the defects suffered by the claimants.

“We are not yet at the point of saying sorry because nobody yet is responsible,” chief executive Chris Mallender said. “Our position has always been that there was no link between the reclamation work that was carried out in Corby in past decades and these children’s birth defects. That is still our position.”

You can read the full report here.

* I do wonder if this had been a London council whether this story over the years would have got rather more national media coverage than has been the case. It’s got all the raw material for a major, on-going media story: personal tragedy, legal drama, scientific controversy and a progressing story.

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  • Andrew Suffield 12th Aug '09 - 7:05pm

    Asking for a “causal link” is a nice get-out, since that’s not something you can ever prove in a case like this. The best that could ever be scientifically established is a high probability that the contamination would have caused birth defects; you can never prove that it actually did cause any specific ones (birth defects are quite common).

    Negligence is the correct standard to hold them to here.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Aug '09 - 9:40am

    The idea here is that if the person with the deformity can prove a causal link, they can get a large payout, but if not they don’t. Now it seems to me the needs of the person with the deformity are the same whether or not the cause of it can be tracked down. So why this discrepancy in providing for their needs? Why this great expense in lawyers and scientific experts and the like trying to prove causality?

    Now, if the causality is successfully proved and Corby council ordered to pay compensation, what happens? The people of Corby must pay more tax, or see a reduction in council services to pay for it. Is this to the good? Those directly responsible for the negligence are not punished. One might say the people of Corby as a whole are punished for electing poor politicians who did not manage this as they should, but why should the punishment fall on anyone who moves into Corby since this happened and not fall on anyone who moves out?

    This is surely a very stupid way of handling the problem here, and there must be better ways to ensure those with needs get their needs catered for, and those responsible for poor decisions which caused harm and which can be shown to be made through negligence, get punished.

  • Matthew , I think Corby council’s insurers will pay in this case. ( probably Zurich ) Corby will see their premiums go up – along with all other local authorities. So we will all bear the cost.
    Good case here for a national no fault compensation scheme. As successfully used in New Zealand.
    Also should put an end to ambulance chasing lawyers – if done properly.
    Won’t happen here because of vested interests, not least a House of commons full of lawyers.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Aug '09 - 2:21pm

    Yes, my recollection is that public bodies will generally have this sort of insurance, plus also a budget to pay small compensations which are below the excess and can be expected to come regularly.

    So what we can see here is that all of us pay for this through taxation which goes on to the insurance companies. Which makes the complexity of it stupid, it would surely be better to cut it down so we just pay people who need care directly for that care rather than have some bureaucracy of insurance and lawyers and all that taking their cut.

    A system whereby public officials who make mistakes of negligence can be disciplined in an appropriate way is necessary. I would suppose that to involve fines proportionate to the salary, and/or demotion/dismissal. The witch-hunt over the Baby P(eter) case in Haringey shows how NOT to do it.

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