Environmental offences and liability under Legislative Decree no. 231/2001

The Supreme Court (III Criminal Division – Judgment 30. May 2022 No. 21034) has recently clarified under what circumstances a company can be held accountable for environmental crimes, with reference to the issue of water pollution from industrial wastewater. Specifically, the Supreme Court has identified in which cases the environmental crime can be qualified as interest or benefit of the company, which are some of the necessary elements to hold the company itself accountable.

The case

In the case under consideration, a company filed appeal against its sentence, assuming that the judgment had not been properly reasoned in terms of proving the concrete existence of the company’s interest (although only potential and assessable in terms of cost savings) in the commission of the crime. The plaintiff also argued that the origin of the effluent from the company had not been proven with absolute certainty because, days before the incidents in reference happened, significant weather events had occurred that could have contributed to cause the damage.

In the ruling under review, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, specifying as follows.

  • First of all, the incidence of stormwater in causing the damage is irrelevant. As a matter of fact, in order to protect water from pollution, the term “discharge” refers to “any spillage of waste, liquid or solid, that comes from the production establishment in its entirety, that is, in the inseparable composition of its elements, regardless of whether part of it is composed of liquids not directly resulting from the production cycle, such as those from toilets or stormwater, discharged into a single receiving body”.
  • Even when it does not directly or indirectly imply cost savings, the interest of the company is nevertheless found in the mere inadequacy of the company’s organizational and managerial choices. The use of a wastewater collection system that is consistent with the business policy but does not comply with the regulations in force, since it is geared to obtaining savings not in terms of expenditure but rather in organizational terms, integrates the conditions of the company’s interest. If also the other conditions that are required are found, the company can be therefore hold accountable by Legislative Decree no.  231/2001.