China’s Top Court Clarifies Environmental Tort Liability Standards

by Beveridge & Diamond PC

On June 1, 2015, China’s Supreme People’s Court (“SPC”) issued an interpretation, The SPC Interpretation on Several Questions Concerning Applicable Law in the Adjudication of Environmental Tort Liability Dispute Cases (“Interpretation”),[1] clarifying key principles in environmental tort cases.  The Interpretation became effective on June 3, 2015 and governs certain civil lawsuits with underlying claims stemming from environmental pollution and ecological damage.[2]  The Interpretation reflects the SPC’s most recent effort to unify standards for Chinese courts to adjudicate environmental tort claims from several widely applicable statutes.  The key elements of the Interpretation are set forth below.

Liability Standard, Defenses, and Allocation of Liability: The Interpretation clarifies the burden of proof and presumption of liability in environmental tort cases.  Foremost, the Interpretation sets forth the general principle that parties against whom tort claims have been brought can be found liable for harm caused by pollution regardless of fault.  Defendants are required to rebut this presumption with specific provisions from either the separate environmental protection laws or China’s Tort Liability Law (“TLL”), which specifies when tort liability may be waived or reduced.[3]  Notably, defenses based on the fact that the discharge or pollutant in question complies with national or local standards, or that the harm was caused by third parties, are not alone sufficient to rebut the presumption of liability.[4] On the question of causation, the Interpretation places the initial burden on the tort claimant to prove “relatedness” between the polluter and the pollution impact at issue; the burden then shifts to the defendant to prove the absence of a causal relationship.[5]  

Regarding allocation of liability under the TLL, the Interpretation provides additional clarity on when joint and several liability applies, as well as situations involving both divisible and indivisible harms.  The Interpretation also provides several criteria for the People’s Courts to consider when ascertaining the extent of an individual defendant’s liability.

Evidentiary Issues: The Interpretation also addresses two key evidentiary issues.  Concerning evidence proffered by experts, the Interpretation clarifies the evidentiary rules pertaining to reports and data from certain qualified institutions, expert opinions, and reports and data from  public authorities.  The second evidentiary issue concerns evidence preservation after environmental emergencies or accidents.  Specifically, the Interpretation addresses the relevant provisions in the Environmental Protection Law (“EPL”) and the Civil Procedure Law regarding requests to preserve evidence, as well as injunctive or pollution prevention and control measures associated with these requests.

Remedies: Regarding remedies, the Interpretation sets forth the available types of relief for aggrieved parties,[6] clarifies the rules pertaining to claims seeking environmental remediation, and provides for the award of consequential and incidental damages for losses caused by an environmental tort.  The Interpretation also removes the statute of limitation contained in the EPL for several types of injunctive relief.

This Interpretation reflects a  second major judicial guidance[7] from China’s top court addressing environmental lawsuits after the country’s strengthened EPL became effective on January 1, 2015 (see B&D alert on January 9, 2015).  The Interpretation broadly covers the adjudication of environmental tort disputes, with limited exceptions for claims stemming from other bodies of law, as discussed above.  The SPC’s issuance of the Interpretation reflects once again the increasing commitment by China’s authorities to improve the country’s governance of environmental litigation, though its impact on actual judicial practice remains to be seen as new cases emerge before the People’s Courts.

The authors graciously acknowledge the assistance of Shengzhi Wang, a summer associate with the Firm, in the preparation of this Alert.

[1] Zuigao Renmin Fayuan Guanyu Shenli Huanjing Qinquan Zeren Jiufen Anjian Shiyong Falü Ruogan Wenti de Jieshi (最高人民法院关于审理环境侵权责任纠纷案件适用法律若干问题的解释) [The Supreme People’s Court Interpretation on Several Questions Concerning Applicable Law in the Adjudication of Environmental Tort Liability Dispute Cases] (promulgated by Sup. People’s Ct. June 1, 2015), available here (last visited June 4, 2015).

[2] The Interpretation applies to all general civil environmental tort lawsuits, except for the following: notably, claims caused by pollution occurring on adjacent properties, which are covered by property law; labor disputes where the alleged harm is caused by pollution in employment activities (which are governed by other laws); or environmental civil public interest cases, which are subject to a separate SPC interpretation (see B&D alert on January 28, 2015).

[3] These situations generally include where: (1) the tort victim is at fault; (2) the tort victim intentionally caused the harm; (3) third-party liability; (4) force majeure; (5) non-excessive self-defense; and (6) necessity. Tort Liability Law, art. 26-31.

[4] Available defenses include that: (1) it is impossible for the discharged pollutants to cause the harm in question; (2) the discharged pollutant that may cause the harm in question never arrived at the site of harm; (3) the harm in question occurred before the discharge; and (4) other scenarios where the court can ascertain the absence of a causal relationship between the act at issue and the harm.

[5] Interpretation at Articles 6-7.

[6] Available types of relief include: an injunction; removal of the cause of the pollutant; removal of the environmental danger posed by the pollutant; restoration of the resource to its original status; “apology”; and monetary compensation.

[7] An earlier SPC judicial interpretation addressed environmental civil public interest litigation.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Beveridge & Diamond PC | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Beveridge & Diamond PC

Beveridge & Diamond PC on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.