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Law - Edited

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Case analysis of:
Empress Car Ltd Car Company (Abertillery) Ltd. v. National Rivers

Material Facts
An unknown person opened an unlocked tap on a diesel oil drum belonging to Empress Car Ltd. Diesel escaped out of the main tank through an extension pipe, landing in a drum that Empress Car Ltd had positioned outside the protective Dyke surrounding the tank. The drum overflowed, with the excess diesel spilling into a drain flowing into the river.

Legal Issue
The legal issue of this case focuses on the interpretation of the word "cause" found in S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991: "a person contravenes this section if he causes or knowingly permits any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter of any solid waste matter to enter any controlled waters".

Empress Car Ltd appealed the decision of the Crown Court by claiming that the company must be held liable for the event only if it had engaged in a positive act. For Empress to found at fault, they claimed, it must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Empress Car Ltd. caused or knowingly permitted polluting matter. The prosecution involves two stages:

1) Did the defendant act? 
2) Did this action cause pollution?

In his analysis of S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991, Lord Hoffman asserts that the notion of "causing" is present in "both limbs": The defendant's actions caused the pollution and the actions the defendant did not take caused the pollution.

Lord Hoffman proceeded to draw attention to the judgement in National Rivers Authority v. Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. [1995] 1 A.C. 444 and Wychavon District Council v. National Rivers Authority [1993] 1 W.L.R. 125. Bearing in mind these cases, S.85 (1) of the Water Resources Act 1991 does not require that the positive act has caused the polluting matter to escape, leading to confusion over the interpretation of "cause".

Regardless of these nuances, the appellant was at fault. The liability is strict, not based on negligence, so the prosecution does not have to prove mens rea. Whilst there must be a positive act by the appellant, the act may not be the cause of pollution. For example, maintaining lagoons may result in a lack of repairs, thus resulting in pollution, without intent to pollute.

Statutory Interpretation
When considering the meaning of the statue, Lord Hoffman adopted an authoritative approach to interpretation, having a number of legal interpretations from which to draw. Some insist that one must adopt a literal interpretation, however absurd the consequences: it is for the legislature to put the absurdity right. This viewpoint necessitates that one must look to the language of the law and nothing else. Others, more liberal in their approach, prefer to interpret the words contained in the law to avoid obvious misapplications. When, for example, the ordinary wording of a statute produces a result that cannot reasonably be supposed to have been the Legislature's intention, proponents of "the golden rule" will reinterpret the wording to eliminate the absurdity.

In the present case, Lord Hoffman noted that the ruling of the divisional courts had presented an absurd result because of the common sense interpretation of the ordinary meaning. Lord Hoffman analysed this approach, intending that the legislative aim collected from the statue and that situations be identified in which a common sense wording would lead to an absurd outcome.

Lord Hoffman summarised the approach to statutory interpretation of this case as follows: the issue does not concern whether the appellant caused the polluting matter but whether it caused the pollution. Lord Hoffman asserted that it is not a common sense approach that is needed, but an adoption of the legal "golden rule".

The ratio decidendi
The ratio decidendi of the case concerns whether the defendant "caused" the escape of pollution into the river. The notion of causality was adjudicated to be present regardless of an additional intervening cause. The deciding factor was as follows: had an act been committed and did such an act contribute in a foreseeable way to the escape of pollution? Evidence indicated that the company had failed to take precautions to guard against foreseeable events such as vandalism. Thus, Lord Hoffman concluded that only an exceptional event could therefore provide a defence against liability as per S.85 (1) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

The Impress decision
Lord Hoffman argues that the divisional court wrongly allowed the appeal and that the magistrate correctly convicted in Impress Ltd V Rees for the following reasons: even if a third party causes the pollution, the defendant cannot be cleared of the same charge of pollution found in S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991. By creating a situation in which the third party could so act, the defendant is held liable for the pollution. Consequently, the divisional court ruling to allow an appeal-based on the evidence that "it was not the conduct of the appellants but the intervening act of the unauthorised person which caused the oil to enter the river" - is inconsistent with Lord Hoffman's argument. He cites Lord Wilberforce's statement: "It should be regarded as a decision that in every case the act of a third person necessarily interrupts the chain of causation the installation or plant from which the flow took place".

Thus, Lord Hoffman concludes that Empress Car, Ltd is liable for the pollution to the river, despite the fact that it did not commit the direct action of releasing the oil. In his concluding remarks, Lord Hoffman states, "Although it is not an absolute liability in the sense that all that has to be shown in that the polluting matter escaped from the defendants land irrespective of how this happened. It must be still possible to say that the defendant caused the pollution".