After years of fighting for environmental justice, the efforts of Ratchaburi villagers who suffered contamination from a waste recycling firm have finally paid off. The Civil Court on Thursday handed down a landmark verdict in their favour, ordering the firm to pay millions of baht in compensation.
Wax Garbage Recycle Center Company, which operates recycling and waste disposal plants on a 300-rai plot of land in tambon Nam Phu of Ratchaburi's Muang district, was ordered to pay all three plaintiffs who filed complaints in 2017 about one million baht in cash, provide medical treatment and rehabilitate contaminated farmland.
The compensation may look meagre when compared with their demand of 500 million baht in total. But given that the lawsuit is a class-action one, the verdict also applies to some 1,000 villagers in the community who have been affected by the same pollution. The lawsuit is the first since the new legal code on class-action suits took effect in 2016.
The firm was also ordered to pay the clean-up costs.
Apart from the civil suit, the villagers also took the case to the Administrative Court, alleging state agencies, including the Industry Ministry and Nam Phu Tambon Administration Organisation, of neglecting their duty for allowing the firm to continue operating for almost two decades despite reports of contamination issued by the Pollution Control Department. The case in the Administrative Court has got under way.
Thursday's verdict indeed heralds the wind of change for society. It sets a precedent for environmental cases, meaning that irresponsible companies will be held accountable, paying compensation in much the same way that Wax Garbage Recycle was ordered to. From now on, the class-action suits will put pressure on executive board members to pay more attention to social and environmental issues; not just on making profits for their companies.
For villagers, class-action suits mean huge leverage. Previously, those affected by pollution needed to file cases individually. That explains why filing an environmental lawsuit was time-consuming -- possibly taking 10 years or longer -- and involved complicated court procedures. Individuals would have been discouraged from taking legal action.
The class-action lawsuit against Wax Garbage Recycle Co took only two years to conclude.
After the victory in this first class-action pollution lawsuit, other villagers who are suffering from industrial pollution will certainly follow in their footsteps.
At this point in time, there are several class-action lawsuits regarding pollution in the civil courts. One involves a controversial gold mine in Phichit province and another is against an Ang Thong factory.
Despite the positives of the class-action win, there is a sad reality: A court victory may not guarantee compensation. Smaller businesses that pollute the environment may choose to go bankrupt rather than pay hefty compensation. A glaring example of this is the case of the Klity villagers in Kanchanaburi province. They won in every court but the company involved declared bankruptcy, so it did not compensate the villagers or pay the cleanup costs.
For the betterment of society, lawsuits should be avoided right from the start. Businesses posing pollution risks must be thoroughly scrutinised under the licence application process.
So apart from modernising the judicial system, the state must solve problems at their core by ensuring state agencies enforce anti-pollution laws.