In what has been dubbed a milestone in US legal history, a lake has filed a lawsuit against a developer in Orange County, Florida. Lake Mary Jane is suing real estate developers Beachline South Residential in Florida State Court over the developer’s plans to build a new development on the north side of the lake, converting 1,900 acres of wetland and forest into a residential development, commercial and office mixed use.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the lake by attorney Steven Meyers, claims the development “would adversely impact the lakes and marshes that are party to this action”, causing “concrete, distinct and palpable” injuries. As an in-depth article in the new yorker Note, the case marks the first time an inanimate slice of nature has sued an entity in US court, sparking a debate about the extent to which natural objects have rights.
The proposed development, named Meridian Parks Remainder, would see the construction of townhouses, apartments and retail space, as part of the wider Meridian Parks masterplan which will provide 4,400 residential units to serve the nearby town of Orlando. The lawsuit claims that filling and altering 100 acres of wetlands as part of the development would restrict the natural flow of creeks into the lake, thereby destroying the local ecology and the lake’s right to exist.
While the case marks the first instance of a lawsuit being filed on behalf of an inanimate natural object, several lawsuits have been successfully filed in the United States by animals and species. Like the new yorker also cites, a dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Justice William Douglas in 1972 noted that “A ship has legal personality, a fiction deemed useful for maritime purposes. A corporation is also a “person” for the purposes of adjudicative processes… So it should be with respect to valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swamps or even the air that smells of the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.
There are also many precedents for inanimate or mute entities represented in court, including corporations, states, estates, or universities. “We make decisions every day on behalf of and in the purported interests of others,” wrote the late USC law professor Christopher Stone, who advocated for granting rights to inanimate natural objects. “These ‘others’ are often creatures whose needs are far less verifiable, and even far more metaphysical in design, than the needs of rivers, trees, and earth.”
Despite the intrigue sparked by the trial, Lake Mary Jane’s efforts seem doomed. Like the new yorker Note, a 2020 Orange County Charter Commission bill that sought to give waterways rights was fought by corporate lobbyists who successfully added an amendment prohibiting local governments from granting legal rights to any part of the natural environment. The developer behind Meridian Lake is therefore seeking to have the Lake Mary Jane case dismissed on the grounds that the lake cannot assert or be granted rights.
“We are realistic,” said lawyer Meyers the new yorker. “We are trying to make a new law, and it is always difficult. But it’s like Michael Jordan said: you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.