Lake Erie Can Now Sue People

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

By: Andrew Beluk, Staff Writer


Human beings have been suing other human beings since the dawn of litigation. But now, a body of water can sue human beings too. On February 26, 2019, citizens of Toledo, Ohio voted to give Lake Erie legal standing to sue polluters in court.[1] More specifically, people may sue polluters on behalf of Lake Erie[2] , which would otherwise have trouble holding the pen to fill out the paperwork by itself and keeping the necessary papers dry.

But back on topic. In the summer of 2014, a dangerous amount of toxic algae had formed in Lake Erie, leading to a state of emergency.[3] This state of emergency lasted for three days and left millions of people near Lake Erie without water.[4] The cause was an equally dangerous amount of runoff from local farms and pollution.[5] A group of concerned citizens met in a pub after this to discuss what could be done to prevent such an event from occurring again, which concluded with the proposition to give Lake Erie the same legal rights as a person.[6]

And so the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment was born.[7] This gives Lake Erie the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and for people to sue on its behalf when these rights are violated.[8] The proposed Bill of Rights was Fpast voters in a local election, who voted to pass it by a wide margin.[9] (Though note, only nine percent of eligible voters turned out for this vote.)[10] Environmental activists were thrilled by the success, hoping that granting Lake Erie legal standing will be a new era in environmental protection.[11]

Not everyone, however, is happy about the depth of legal possibilities this presents. The very next day, on February 27, a group of farmers in Toledo tried to go against the flow by suing the city to prevent the passing of the bill.[12] These farmers allege that the bill is an attack on the “fundamental rights of farmers,” is too vague to be enforced, and will lead to a stream of lawsuits forcing farmers to make costly changes to how they operate their farms.[13] According to professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, the farmers’ suit may actually be successful in court.[14] Professor Adler points to the fact that Lake Erie extends well past Toledo, and reasons that the citizens of one jurisdiction cannot decide for the rest how such a shared resource will be protected.[15]

This is the first time a part of nature has been granted official legal standing in the United States, but interestingly not the first time in other parts of the world. Such laws granting standing to nature have been enacted in Ecuador, New Zealand, Colombia, and India.[16] The Amazon Rainforest is similar to Lake Erie in that it may legally stand in court against polluters.[17] Similarly, a man in Athens, Georgia tried to grant a beloved white oak tree the rights to its own land soemtime during the 20thcentury.[18] The Tree That Owns Itself lived until 1942 when a windstorm blew it over.[19] The community was so distraught by the tree’s death that they planted one of its seedlings, and The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself is considered to have inherited the eight-foot in radius plot of land.[20] This is not legally recognized, unlike the Amazon Rainforest’s and Lake Erie’s new legal rights, but the local community unofficially recognizes this arrangement all the same.[21]

Granting legal rights to a body of water is certainly a unique solution to growing environmental concerns. But given the international precedent, it is interesting to consider that this is a new step in the evolution of environmental law. This development was hinted at in a dissent written by Justice William O. Douglas in Sierra Club v. Morton,[22] and could very well continue to grow as a movement.

In short, to attorneys and future attorneys in environmental law: If someday your client is a forest, a valley, or a lake, don’t be surprised.



























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