Mother of girl whose death was linked to air pollution sues UK government

  • london
  • January 25, 2024
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The mother of a nine-year-old girl who became the first person in the UK to have air pollution cited on their death certificate has launched a high court claim against the government.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is suing three government departments for compensation for personal injury arising from the illness and premature death of her daughter Ella. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department of Health and Social Care have all been named as defendants in the claim.

Her lawyers said she hoped the action would further her broader campaign to establish the “right to clean air”.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, from south-east London, had a fatal asthma attack in 2013 after being exposed to excessive air pollution. In an inquest in 2020, a coroner ruled that air pollution had “made a material contribution” to her death.

Ravi Mehta, the barrister instructed by Hodge Jones & Allen, the law firm representing the family, said in written arguments presented to the court: “While this claim does include a claim for damages, it is not about money. Rather, the focus of the claim is about seeking vindication for the death of Ella, a child.”

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah spent years investigating potential links between Ella’s death and air pollution, particularly unlawful levels of nitrogen dioxide caused by traffic.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died from breathing difficulties relating to her asthma. Photograph: The Ella Roberta Family Foundation

The family lived approximately 25 metres from the busy South Circular and Ella regularly walked by it on her way to and from school. She developed asthma shortly before her seventh birthday and over the next two years was admitted to hospital 27 times after repeated seizures. She had the fatal asthma attack a few weeks after her ninth birthday.

Healthcare professionals had not identified air pollution as a potential cause of her ill health before her death. Her mother later said moving “would have been the first thing” the family would have done if they had known the risks that air pollution posed to Ella.

In the preliminary case management hearing, Mehta noted: “This is no ordinary personal injury claim. It is legally complex because it is the first claim of its kind. It is factually complex because it concerns the acts and omissions of three government departments over a period of many years. The extent of the expert evidence and disclosure is likely to resemble that which would be seen in the context of a piece of group litigation.”

If successful, the action would be the “first claim to establish what Rosamund has described as the ‘right to clean air’ under the Human Rights Act”, he said.

Colin Thomann, representing the government, said in written arguments that the claim was disputed in its entirety. He said the claim significantly overestimated any potential damages that might be awarded.

Thomann said Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s lawyers had estimated the claim to be worth £293,156 but the government considered the maximum the claim could be worth as £30,000 if successful.

A Defra spokesperson said the department was unable to comment on active legal proceedings. They said: “The government has delivered significant improvements in air quality at a national level since 2010 but we recognise there is more to do.”