High Court backs multi-party actions

Roger Pearson says a failed attempt to derail two class actions could have major implications for similar cases in the future.

Moves which could have resulted either in the striking out of two major High Court damages actions over leaks from a chemical factory or in their being swept into the relative obscurity of a county court have failed.

In a decision of considerable significance for all multi-plaintiff actions, Mr Justice Cox has rejected claims by multinational company, Monsanto, that the actions being brought against it by nearly 500 plaintiffs should be either struck out as an abuse of process or transferred to a county court on the basis that the value of the claims did not meet the £50,000 High Court lower limit.

The cases centre on two sets of claims by residents of Cefn Mawr, near Wrexham, following leaks of hydrogen sulphide and carbon disulphide from Monsanto's chemical plant in the town in November 1994 and in October 1995.

The plaintiffs claim they have suffered a wide variety of acute chemical poisoning symptoms, including sickness, burning eyes and throats, diarrhoea, headaches, anxiety, distress, asthma and epilepsy attacks.

Monsanto mounted the abuse of process claim on the basis that each of the hundreds of claims should be treated as individual actions rather than together as two sets of group actions.

However, Judge Cox ruled that each set of claims was "clearly a class action" because the fundamental issues were essentially the same in all the claims.

On the question of the value of the claims, he said that while individually they might not reach the High Court threshold, collectively they did, making the High Court the appropriate forum for the cases.

Judge Cox also stressed the public interest aspect of the actions and said he considered this a relevant factor in making his ruling.

Leigh Day & Co solicitor Daniel Bennett, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, says the judge's decision was a significant one which has ensured that the cases will get the high profile he believes they merit.

"Monsanto's attempts to derail the actions were firmly rejected by the judge," says Bennett. "The judge left no doubt that these cases are ones which should clearly remain group actions and were ones which he considered, because of the potential environmental impact of chemical plants, were of interest not just to the local residents but to the community at large."

He adds: "Apart from anything else the action is significant because [members of] the community have taken it on themselves to enforce the laws in respect of environmental pollution rather than waiting for the state to act on their behalf."

The cases are of further note in that half of the clients are legally aided while the other half are represented on a no win, no fee basis. It is one of the first multi-party actions to be conducted in this way. "After-the-event" insurance cover has been taken out with Greystoke Legal Services against the possibility of defeat and an order to pay Monsanto's costs.