On March 15th, 2017, a law was approved in New Zealand recognising the Whanganui River as a legal person. In accompanying media articles it wasn't clear whether this meant a living entity, a person or a human; the article author says "human", the Whanganui representative is quoted as saying "living entity" and Finlayson is quoted as saying "person". I recognise that these are three different (although overlapping) legal definitions carrying different liabilities. And while I would agree that the net ecosystem services of a river clearly outweight its costs even before you consider the social and religious significance, as far as I am aware the law on corporate personhood does not recognise this. If/when you cause harm, you can be sued.
Assuming that a direct quote from the minister responsible for the law (Chris Finlayson) can be taken at face value:
Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person
... I assume (and it would be sensible if) we're actually talking about legal personhood here. In which case, if the river floods, it is personally (and criminally) liable for the damage? If someone drowns, the river will be prosecuted for murder? What happens if a river goes bankrupt?
The Economist article mentions that some NZers have been 'joking' about whether the river can be prosecuted if someone drowns, but doesn't attempt to answer that. I assume it's implying that it's ludicrous, but that's not obvious to me from the information provided.
I am interested to know whether this decision potentially creates significant legal liabilities for the river which may not be obvious to those who think this is a straightforward environmental 'win' for the Whanganui.