10 year litigation 'saga' ends in higher compensation

11th November 2013


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Thames Water has been ordered to pay victims of a sewage spill more compensation after losing an eight-year legal battle, which has cost the firm £750,000

Southwark crown court has increased the compensation that Thames Water must pay homeowners and allotment holders for letting raw sewage flood parts of Beckenham, South London, in 2003. The court rejected the appeal by Thames Water to pay a smaller fine and less compensation to victims of the incident, upholding the penalties imposed by Bromley magistrates’ court in 2011 and increasing the damages it must pay to those affected by the pollution.

At the earlier hearing, magistrates were told that between February and April 2003, Thames Water had allowed raw sewage to repeatedly escape from a local sewer system into properties, a street, allotments and St James’ Stream. They also heard that there had been previous sewage flooding in the area. The court found that the company had failed to take steps to bring the situation under control, fining it £204,000 for 15 environmental offences.

Thames Water pleaded guilty to four offences under section 85 of the Water Resources Act 1991 in relation to polluting the stream at the magistrates’ court hearing, but denied 11 charges relating to depositing waste in the gardens, garages, a street and allotments contrary to section 33 of the Environment Protection Act 1990. The firm’s challenge led to an eight-year legal battle, with the case being heard twice by the High Court and once by the Court of Justice of the European Union, before being heard by magistrates in 2011.

At the time, Angus Innes, from the Environment Agency’s prosecution team, said: “Pollution of rivers and streams is relatively easy to prosecute as the offences are subject to strict liability, without proving negligence or intent. But to prosecute the 11 waste deposit offences we had to first overcome Thames Water’s argument in superior courts that the waste laws did not apply to it. Once the European Court had agreed that these laws did apply, we were able to prove in the magistrates’ court that Thames Water did not act with due diligence in addressing the problems flowing from the collapsed sewer.”

Rejecting the appeal, the crown court judges upheld the fines and increased the amount that the company must pay its victims – from £2,000 to £3,000 for a homeowner affected by the sewage and from £250 to £1,000 to an allotment holder. The court also ordered Thames Water to pay the agency’s appeal costs, which amounted to more than £10,000.

As well as fines and compensation totalling £208,015, Thames Water has to pay £206,000 to cover the agency’s legal costs for its various unsuccessful legal proceedings. It is estimated that the 10-year case has cost Thames Water more than £750,000 when its own legal costs are included.

A spokesperson for the company said: “In this case we appealed against the original fines imposed by Bromley magistrates as we felt they failed to take into account our mitigating actions during the period concerned. We lost this appeal and we accept the court’s decision.”

The agency says it is investigating another incidence of sewer flooding affecting the same residents, which occurred in January this year.

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