The UK Supreme Court on Friday allowed a case filed by 42,335 Nigerian claimants against Shell‘s parent company and a Nigerian subsidiary to proceed in UK courts.
The claimants first sued Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary in 2015 over allegedly leaking oil from pipelines in the Niger Delta that resulted in the destruction of farmland, the death of fish stock, and poisoned drinking water. They argued that the oil spills occurred due to the negligence of the subsidiary company responsible for operating the pipelines. They argued that Shell’s parent company “owed them a common law duty of care” since it exercised significant control over the operations of the Nigerian subsidiary.
In 2017, a lower court ruled that although the court could try the matter against the parent company registered in the UK, “it was not reasonably arguable that there is any duty of care” for the parent company. This decision was subsequently appealed and heard by the Court of Appeal.
In 2018, the Court of Appeal dismissed the claimant’s case by ruling that there was “no arguable case” that the parent company owed the Nigerian claimants a common law duty of care. This decision was appealed to the UK Supreme Court. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition Ltd. intervened and submitted a legal brief setting out the applicability of comparative law and standards in cases of environmental protection and human rights violations concerning companies’ responsibilities in such situations. CORE and the ICJ had previously filed a similar legal brief in a case filed by Zambian communities against the mining giant Vedanta (Lungowe v. Vedanta Resources PLC), in which the court ruled that “companies can be held to account for public commitments regarding their subsidiaries’ operating standards.”
The Supreme Court allowed the Nigerian claimants to proceed against Shell’s parent company and the Nigerian subsidiary by reversing earlier lower court decisions and reaffirmed the precedent established in the Vedanta judgment.