(CN) – Fishermen can recover economic losses from pollution despite not owning any express property rights, the Florida Supreme Court ruled.
A class action claimed that a 2004 spill from a phosphate wastewater pond into the Tampa Bay damaged the reputation of fishery products. Defendant Mosaic Fertilizer LLC maintained the pond, which was surrounded by dikes deemed inadequate by the state Department of Environmental Protection before the spill.
The trial court had ruled that since the fishermen had no property, they couldn’t make any damage claims.
But the state high court said Florida environmental statutes should be “liberally construed,” citing that damages may be recoverable for injury to natural resources and living things.
The state legislature “enacted a far-reaching statutory scheme aimed at remedying, preventing, and removing the discharge of pollutants from Florida’s waters and lands,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince wrote for the five-judge majority.
The state high court ruled that Mosaic owed a duty of care to the special interest of fishermen, pointing out that other courts have held similarly.
“Here, the discharge of the pollutants constituted a tortious invasion that interfered with the special interest of the commercial fishermen to use those public waters to earn their livelihood,” the ruling stated.
The fishermen must still prove all the elements of their claims in order to prevail, the majority concluded. The high court reinstated the fishers’ class action.
Justice Ricky Polston dissented on the common law conclusions, stating that fishermen have no interest any more special than Floridians who depend on healthy ocean waters. Allowing them to claim negligence would open the door to endless foreseeable liability, Polston argued.