Exemplary damages in environmental litigation

When damages are awarded in civil claims before the courts, their general purpose is to ensure that the plaintiff is compensated for damage he or she has suffered. The aim is not to punish the defendant, since this is treated as a matter for the criminal law. Yet the boundaries between the two systems are not always clear, and a recent decision on a point of law by the High Court illustrates how private litigation in environmental cases can be employed to have strong punitive overtones.

A B v South West Water Services Ltd (Times Law Reports, 8 May 1992) arose out of the Camelford incident in 1988, when some 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate deposited at one of the water company's treatment works was allowed to enter the drinking water supply system. South West Water has already been prosecuted and found guilty of the crime of public nuisance due to the incident. The present proceedings arose out of civil actions for compens

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