Top court reserves judgment on Quebec cement factory lawsuit

Canada's highest court has reserved judgment in a case involving a Quebec City-area cement company that green groups warn could limit the ability to launch class-action environmental lawsuits.

Canada's highest court has reserved judgment in a case involving a Quebec City-area cement company that environmental groups warn could limit the ability to launch environmental class-action lawsuits.

The lawsuit was brought against St. Lawrence Cement by a group of residents living near the company's Beauport, Que., factory.

The residents sought compensation for damage caused by the factory’s operation, including decades of noise, odour, as well as dust problems between 1991 and 1997. They also argued effects from the plant drove down their property values.

The Supreme Court's ruling at a later date could determine whether companies are responsible for nuisance effects to neighbouring communities even if the companies comply with environmental standards.

St. Lawrence Cement, which closed its Beauport plant in 1997 after 42 years of operation, appealed all the way to the top court, arguing it met regulatory emissions standards.

While the Quebec Superior Court ruled St. Lawrence Cement was not involved in any wrongdoing, it did order it to pay $15 million in damages. The initial ruling applied a section of the Quebec Civil Code, which states that neighbours cannot be expected to suffer annoyances beyond reasonable levels of tolerance.

The Quebec Court of Appeal reversed the decision, ruling nuisance claims couldn't be brought as class-action proceedings. Furthermore, it ruled only property owners could bring forward such nuisance claims, and not tenants or family members of owners.

But the appeal court did find the company at fault, saying it had an obligation to keep its pollution-control equipment at optimal working order at all times during production hours.

Two environmental groups — Quebec Environmental Law Centre and Friends of the Earth Canada (FOEC) — had intervenor status in the case and argued individual citizens should not be hindered from filing private nuisance lawsuits, especially when industrial emission regulations fail to provide adequate protection for their homes.

"By limiting the availability of the class-action procedure in environmental nuisance cases, an important environmental protection tool for ordinary Canadians was undermined," Will Amos, a lawyer for Ecojustice, said Wednesday in a release before he argued the environmental groups' case before the court.

Lawyers for St. Lawrence Cement were not immediately available for comment on Thursday.