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Supreme Court of Canada Dismisses Appeal Brought by St. Lawrence Cement:
Court deems it is possible to be liable for neighbourhood disturbances even where no fault has been committed

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November 20, 2008


Montréal, November 20, 2008 - Today, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal brought by St. Lawrence Cement in a judgment that sets the metes and bounds for the notion of "neighbourhood disturbances".

This Supreme Court ruling is innovative in that it clearly states that a scheme of no-fault liability exists in respect of neighbourhood disturbances. Normally, civil liability is based on fault, injury and a causal connection between the two. Here, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is possible to be liable for neighbourhood disturbances even where no fault has been committed.

Commenting on the decision, Fasken Martineau's Montreal based partner André Durocher, said that this decision creates a zone of incertitude and runs the risk of being injurious to businesses: "Normally, we are responsible for the harm we inflict on others and we are obliged to pay damages when we make an mistake," said Mr. Durocher in an interview with Montreal's La Presse. "In future, the plaintiff will only have to prove the injury suffered by the members of the group, and the cause of action, without this necessarily having been a mistake. The investors might be put off by the impossibility of being safe from prosecution even if they respect the law," added Mr. Durocher.

Take, for example, a citizen who lives next to a café where the owner uses a coffee roaster. The owner uses the roaster according to the manufacturer's instructions and complies with by-laws on noise and odours. Yet despite all this, the neighbour can complain if he suffers abnormal neighbourhood disturbances. Everything hinges on the meaning and scope of the words "abnormal neighbourhood disturbances".

According to article 976 of the Civil Code of Québec, the notion of "neighbourhood annoyances" provides that neighbours must suffer the normal neighbourhood annoyances that are not beyond the limit of tolerance they owe each other, according to the nature or location of their land or local custom.

Keep these few facts in mind: in 1993, 2,000 citizens fought a legal battle against St. Lawrence Cement that operated a cement plant in the suburbs of Québec City, complaining of dust, noise and odours.

The Superior Court ruled that the neighbours had failed to prove that the company committed a fault in its operation of the plant: they did not prove that the company failed to abide by environmental protection regulations.

Even so, St. Lawrence Cement was ordered to pay damages due to neighbourhood annoyances because the court deemed that one could be held liable for inconveniences caused to one's neighbours even where no fault was committed.

St. Lawrence Cement appealed the ruling, arguing that it had complied with various environmental protection standards and conditions, and had not committed any fault. The Court of Appeal, contrary to the Superior Court, opined that no-fault liability did not exist in Québec. And still contrary to the Superior Court, the Court of Appeal decided that St. Lawrence Cement had indeed committed a fault, in this case that its anti-pollution equipment had not always operated optimally, a requirement under the Regulation respecting the administration of the Environment Quality Act.

Today, the Supreme Court reinstated the Superior Court judgment and ruled that the right of ownership has limits, and one's neighbours cannot be forced to suffer abnormal or excessive annoyances.

Like the Superior Court of Québec, the Supreme Court believes that St. Lawrence Cement did not engage in excessive conduct, had no intent to injure and committed no civil fault.

Still, the Supreme Court decided that, in matters of neighbourhood disturbances, there can be liability even without fault, and therefore sentenced St. Lawrence Cement to pay its neighbours several million dollars in damages.

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Anne-Julie Maltais
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