UK Supreme Court reverses decision on Nigerian oil spills case
The UK High Court and Court of Appeal had earlier ruled that there is not any duty of care for Shell's British parent company
A recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom had given a ray of hope to 42,335 Nigerians by allowing them to proceed with their case against Shell's parent company and a Nigerian subsidiary in UK courts.
The claimants had first sued Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary in 2015 over allegedly leaking oil from pipelines in the Niger Delta. The unplugged oil pipeline leakage allegedly led to the destruction of farmland, the death of fish stock, and poisoned drinking water.
They had argued that the oil spills had happened due to the negligence of the subsidiary company responsible for operating the pipelines and demanded from Shell's British parent company compensation saying it "owed them a common law duty of care" as it exercised significant control over the operations of its Nigerian subsidiary.
The UK High Court in 2017 ruled that although the court could try the matter against the parent company, "it was not reasonably arguable that there is any duty of care" for the parent company.
This decision was subsequently challenged in the Court of Appeal which in 2018 dismissed the claimants' case by ruling that there was "no arguable case" that the parent company owed the Nigerian claimants a common law duty of care.
The claimants subsequently challenged the Court of Appeal's ruling in the Supreme Court.
Intervention by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition Ltd and their submission about the applicability of comparative law and standards in cases of environmental protection and human rights violations concerning companies' responsibilities in such situations helped convince the SC to allow the Nigerian claimants to proceed with their case in the UK court.
CORE and the ICJ had previously intervened and filed a similar legal brief in a case filed by the Zambian communities against the mining giant Vedanta (Lungowe v. Vedanta Resources PLC). The court in that case held that companies can be held to account for public commitments regarding their subsidiaries' operating standards.
The Supreme Court through its 12 February 2020 ruling reaffirmed the precedent established in the Vedanta judgment were applicable in this case too.