You are here

Bangladeshi villager loses arsenic poisoning case in the Lords

6 July 2006

A Bangladeshi villager who suffered from arsenic poisoning after drinking contaminated water has lost a test case in the House of Lords (Sutradhar v Natural Environment Research Council [2006] UKHL 33).

Mr Sutradhar, on behalf of 460 other villagers, claimed that a report on the quality of groundwater in Bangladesh prepared for the British Geological Survey (BGS), a department of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC, a UK statutory body), which did not test for arsenic, was relied on by the Bangladeshi authorities who then failed to take steps to ensure that the water was safe to drink. As a result, he claimed, the Council was in breach of its duty of care.

At first instance the High Court found that the issue raised a novel point of law and should be allowed to proceed to trial.

But the Court of Appeal determined that there was an insufficient relationship of proximity between the parties to give rise to a liability in negligence. The appeal judges ruled by a 2:1 majority that the claimant had no reasonable prospect of satisfying a court that in all circumstances the NERC owed him a duty of care.

Giving the lead speech in the Lords, Lord Hoffman said that the failure to test for arsenic had been particularly unfortunate and pointed to a report by the World Health Organisation which found that, as a consequence, "between 35 and 77 million [Bangladeshi] are at risk of drinking contaminated water" and which described the situation as "the greatest environmental disaster that ever happened."

But Lord Hoffmann said: "the claim is hopeless." "The claimant in my opinion fails at the first hurdle of showing an arguable case that he was owed a duty of care."

The Law Lord added: "It is however worth considering the other formidable difficulties which, even if his case on this point had not been as hopeless as I think it is, he would have had to overcome in order to establish liability. He would have to show that it was negligent of the BGS, in the context of a report which did not purport to be a certificate of the potability of drinking water, not to have questioned the current orthodoxy that it was not necessary to test for arsenic. He would have to establish the causative effect of the report in the sense of showing that but for the publication of the report containing its implied endorsement by the BGS of the unlikelihood of arsenic being present in the water, that orthodoxy would have been questioned by the Bangladesh government or someone else who would have alerted the government to the dangers. He would have to show that the government would have done something to provide alterative water supply for the claimant's village. All of these points are conceded to be arguable, but the claimant must succeed on all of them and, as any punter will know, if your chances on each of four issues are 20%, your chances of succeeding on all four are less than 0.2%."

Categorised in:

Procedures Divorce Marriage & Civil partnership The Bar