The UK Supreme Court on Friday allowed a group of 42,500 Nigerian farmers and fishermen to sue Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) in English courts after years of oil spills in the Niger Delta, contaminated soil and groundwater .
The lead judges said Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies, domiciled in the UK, had a common law duty of care, in the latest case to check whether multinationals can be held liable for acts of subsidiaries abroad.
The move comes nearly two years after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in a case involving mining company Vedanta. The judgment allowed nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers to sue Vedanta in England for alleged pollution in Africa.
The move was seen as a victory for rural communities seeking to hold parent companies accountable for environmental disasters. Vedanta finally settled out of court in January.
The Nigerian Ogale and Bille communities say their lives and health have suffered because repeated oil spills have contaminated land, swamps, groundwater and waterways and there has been no cleanup or dredging. adequate sanitation.
Represented by law firm Leigh Day, they argued that Shell owed them a duty of care because it either had significant control over or was responsible for its subsidiary SPDC. Shell countered that the court had no jurisdiction to adjudicate the claims.
“(The decision) also represents a defining moment in the responsibility of multinational companies. Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will dramatically increase their ability to do so,” said Daniel Leader, Partner at Leigh Day.
SPDC is the pipeline operator in a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation which holds 55% of the capital, Shell which holds 30%, the French Total with 10%, the Italian Eni with 5%.
A Shell spokesperson said the decision was disappointing.
“Whatever the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans and repairs. It also works hard to prevent these sabotage spills, using technology, increasing surveillance and promoting alternative livelihoods for those who could damage pipes and equipment,” Shell said.
Shell blamed sabotage for the oil spills. He said in his annual report released last March that SPDC, which produces around 1 million barrels of oil a day, saw crude oil spills caused by theft or pipeline sabotage increase by 41% in 2019.
Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said last week that the company would take “another hard look at its onshore oil operations” in the West African country.
The ruling is the second judgment against Shell this year regarding claims against its Nigerian operations. In a landmark Dutch ruling two weeks ago, an appeals court held Shell liable for several oil pipeline leaks in the Niger Delta and ordered it to pay unspecified damages to farmers, in a victory for environmentalists.
Leigh Day said the amount of compensation sought would be quantified as the case entered the trial phase.
In 2015, Shell agreed to pay 55 million pounds ($83.4 million) to the Bodo community in Nigeria in compensation for two oil spills, which was the largest out-of-court settlement ever related to spills Nigerian oil.
(Reporting by Julia Payne and Kirstin Ridley; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean)
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