Case 20/2009

Office of the Public Ombudsman v. MVOTMA et al. Preventive action
Download Judgment: English Spanish
Country: Uruguay
Region: Americas
Year: 2009
Court: Tribunal Apelaciones Civil Sexto Turno [Sixth Civil Appellate Court]
Health Topics: Child and adolescent health, Environmental health
Human Rights: Right to a clean environment
Tags: Children, Contamination, Environmental hazards, Industrial waste, Pediatric health, Poisoning, Pollution

The Public Ombudsman brought a preventive action against the Ministry of Housing, Zoning and the Environment and the Municipal Government of Montevideo, for lead contamination in the soil of the neighborhood of La Teja. The contamination was discovered in 2001, and a number of measures were taken by relevant public agencies and by the executive to remove the contamination and mitigate its harm. Regardless, people, including children, were still exposed to the lead contamination, with some having concentrations of lead in their blood of more than 20 ug/dl.

The lower court found for the claimant, and ordered the respondents to facilitate transport and housing for families from the area with certain concentrations of lead in their blood, as well as remediation measures to clean up the soil. The respondents appealed.

The Court held that the respondents had complied with any duty they had and dismissed the preventive action.

The Court held that relevant legal standard for State civil liability is when there is a “failure to serve.” Article 24 of Uruguay’s constitution imposed civil liability on the State for damages conducted by third parties if done in the implementation of public services and under the management or direction of a state agency. However, Article 24 does not state the test to determine when liability sticks, which the Court held to be when the State engages in actions “that are contrary to the normal functioning of the service” that the State should be providing. This the Court termed this a “failure to serve” and stated it applied in regards to the right to a clean environment.

The Court held that the State was not directly liable for the lead contamination and that the State had complied with its obligations. The Court noted that the landfill was filled with contaminants by third parties not related to the State, particularly waste from foundries and recycling plants. The Court held that the presence of lead in the soil was not due to the respondents' actions or omissions, and overturned the lower court. The Court reviewed the array of programs the State had engaged in to mitigate the environmental harms, and found that the various measures that the respondents had taken in response to the contamination complied with their respective duties of environmental protection.

“Therefore, it is fundamental to keep in mind the applicable legal framework, which regulates the jurisdiction of state entities, in order to determine whether the respondents’ actions were unlawful, in the sense that such actions or omissions could be classified as “failure to serve”.”  (translation, page 3)

“Por ello, es fundamental tener presente el marco normativo vigente, regulatorio de las competencias estatales, para analizar la actuación de las demandadas, de modo determinar si existió o no ilicitud en la conducta de los organismos estatales que permita encuadrar su accionar o sus omisiones en la noción de "falta de servicio".” (original, page 3)

“…Uruguay is governed by a public environmental policy, and therefore the right to a clean environment is considered a public human right (Arts. 7, 72, 47 and 332 of the National Constitution) … The natural consequence of holding the right to a clean environment to be a public human right is the existence of a State duty to protect the environment, which clearly correlates to the subjective rights of the inhabitants of the Republic to have their rights to the enjoyment of a clean and stable environment protected (Sentence No. 92/08 of this Court). To these rights it is necessary to include, in the case at hand, the right to public health and hygiene (Arts. 47 and 332 of the Constitution, Arts. 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Law No. 17.283).” (translation, page 3-4)

“En el Uruguay, rige un orden público ambiental, por cuanto el Derecho Ambiental es un Derecho de Protección Pública (arts. 7, 72, 47 y 332 de la Constitución Nacional) … La consecuencia connatural del emplazamiento del Derecho Ambiental como un Derecho de Protección Pública es la existencia de un deber del Estado a la protección del medio ambiente, claro correlato del derecho subjetivo de los habitantes de la

República a ser protegidos en el goce de un ambiente sano y equilibrado (sentencia Nº 92/08 de la Sala), derechos a los cuales cabe adicionar, en la especie, el derecho a la salud e higiene públicas (arts. 47 y 332 de la Carta; arts. 2, 3, 4 y 5 de la Ley Nº 17.283).” (original, page 3)

“…what this Court needs to examine is whether, after the time in which the lead poisoning from soil contamination affecting various persons, and particularly children, in La Teja became public knowledge, the respondents’ actions were adequate to deal with the problem, whether they adopted the necessary concrete measures to evacuate affected persons from the area, to clean up the soil, and to provide medical attention to affected persons, despite the fact that this last was not pleaded in the claim.” (translation, page 4)

“…lo que corresponde examinar es si, con posterioridad al conocimiento público de la contaminación de diversas personas y, en especial, de niños de La Teja, la conducta de las accionadas fue idónea para enfrentar el problema, adoptando las medidas concretas pertinentes, que refieren al traslado de las personas afectadas, la remediación de los suelos y la atención de la salud de los afectados, aunque este último tema no constituye el objeto de la pretensión deducida.” (original, page 4)

“In fact, the information entered into evidence, evaluated cumulatively, tends to show, rationally and in accordance with the rules of reasonable judgment (Art. 410 of the CGP), that the respondent authorities, acting with the advice and assistance of other state entities, undertook diverse measures in order to comprehensively evaluate the situation, eradicate or remediate contaminants, and attend to the health of affected persons, which also implied seeking housing and schooling solutions.” (translation, page 4)

“En efecto, del informativo probatorio allegado a la causa, valorado en su conjunto, racionalmente y de acuerdo con las reglas de la sana crítica (art. 140 CGP), emerge que las entidades demandadas, asesoradas o asistidas por otros organismos del Estado, cumplieron diversas medidas dirigidas al diagnóstico integral de la situación, a la erradicación o tratamiento de factores contaminantes, a la atención de la salud de la población afectada, lo que implicaba también soluciones habitacionales y en el área educativa;” (original, page 4)

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