Class action suits dwindle as Appeal Court throws out case against environment body

A third class action in as many months has collapsed, leaving almost no cases of its kind left in the court system.

The Court of Appeal found that the defendant organisation, the Natural Environment Research Council, did not owe a duty of care to the 512 Bangladeshi claimants in the personal injury action.

The claim, brought by Leigh Day & Co and Alexander Harris, centred on the fact that the British Geological Survey (BGS), which is part of the defendant organisation, had not carried out tests for arsenic in the water supply of a region in Bangladesh. As a result of this omission, the claimants allegedly suffered arsenic poisoning from water which they thought was safe.

The defendant has successfully appealed a ruling in May 2003 by Mr Justice Simon for strike-out of the claim. The claimants’ case was publicly funded throughout.

While Lord Justice Clarke dissented, two other appeal court judges held: “It does not seem to me either fair, just or reasonable, and would be a mighty leap to make the defendants liable for personal injuries arising from drinking polluted water.”

The case brought leading product liability barrister, Lord Dan Brennan QC of Matrix Chambers, against Michael Beloff QC of Blackstone Chambers.

Martyn Day, of Leigh Day & Co, said it is likely he will appeal to the House of Lords. “We are calling for development of the existing law [on duty of care]. The fact the courts have gone this far have shown they consider it to be an important issue.”

Charles Pugh, of Old Square Chambers, junior counsel for the defendants, said duty of care requires “some form of close relationship” between the two parties if a successful claim is to be brought.