Children in high court victory

Professor Robert Lee | 13 years ago

In a major High Court ruling, a group of young people claiming birth defects caused by exposure to a ‘soup of toxic materials’ following land reclamation have won a legal action against their local authority.

The case involves 18 claimants born between 1986 and 1999 with deformities of the upper limbs who allege that their mothers were exposed during their pregnancies to toxic materials in the course of the Corby Borough Council’s reclamation and decontamination programme on a former steel works. Between 1983 and 1989, Corby Borough Council acquired 680 acres of heavily contaminated land in Corby, Northamptonshire, from British Steel Corporation, with a view to reclamation and redevelopment.

The 18 claimants, aged nine to 22, successfully argued that their defects were caused by their mothers’ exposure to pollution during the ongoing removal and transportation of the contaminated material. They had sued Corby Borough Council, which denied negligence during the land reclamation and argued that there was no causal link between the removal of contaminated soils to landfill and birth deformities suffered by the claimants.

Handing down judgment on 29 July 2009, Judge Robert Akenhead found a ‘statistically significant’ cluster of birth defects which seemed linked in, temporally and geographically to the land re-development and ruled that: ‘There was an extended period between 1983 and August 1997 in which Corby Borough Council was extensively negligent in its control and management of the sites (which) led to the extensive dispersal of contaminated mud and dust over public areas of Corby and into and over private homes, with the result that the contaminants could realistically have caused the types of birth defects of which complaint has been made by the claimants.

This type of multi-party toxic tort claim is rare in the present day, not least because of difficulties in funding such cases. Success in such cases is rarer still, given the burden of proving causation. It remains to be seen whether the Council will appeal, a decision to be taken by the Council in open session, but its chief executive remained adamant that: ‘Epidemiological data will demonstrate that there is no cluster of cases and that the numbers of children with such deformities is “normal” for the population.’

About the author

Professor Robert Lee

ERIC Director and Head of Birmingham Law School, Professor Robert Lee was co-director of the publicly funded Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society at Cardiff University (BRASS). He is an expert on regulation, including environmental regulation and regulation of biotechnology and biomedicine. He previously worked for two top 10 UK law firms, and remains a professional-development consultant to one of the largest law firms in Europe, working on pan-European delivery of legal services.