The UK Supreme Court has ruled that a group of about 50,000 Nigerian farmers and fishermen can sue Royal Dutch Shell in British courts over oil spillage in the Niger Delta that has polluted their land and water bodies.
The court’s judgment overruled an earlier verdict by a British lower court that said Shell had no case to answer to the farmers and fishermen from the Ogale and Bille communities in Niger Delta.
The five Supreme Court judges said the Anglo-Dutch firm has questions to answer for the activities of its subsidiaries like the Shell Development Company of Nigeria, which operates in communities in the Niger Delta.
The court in its ruling said a lower appeals court had “materially erred in law” when it ruled against the claimants, Reuters reported. The Supreme Court justices said the appeal had “a real prospect of success.”
The claimants said their lives have been affected by years of oil spillage from pipelines operated by Shell, affecting their economic activities as well. They also added that they brought the case to Britain because they have little hope of success in Nigerian courts.
Lawyer for the claimants, Daniel Leader, hailed the ruling of the Supreme Court as a “watershed moment in accountability for multinational companies.” “Increasingly, impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so,” Leader, partner at Leigh Day, said. “UK common law is also used in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand so this is a very helpful precedent.”
According to Reuters, the Supreme Court gave a similar ruling two years ago involving Zambia villagers against mining company Vedanta. The judgment allowed some 2,500 Zambia villagers to sue Vedanta for pollution in Africa.
Shell described the ruling as disappointing saying it has always done what is necessary to protect local communities affected by the spillage. “Regardless of the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans up and remediates. It also works hard to prevent these sabotage spills, by using technology, increasing surveillance and by promoting alternative livelihoods for those who might damage pipes and equipment,” Reuters quoted a Shell spokesperson as saying.
Shell also blames sabotage and criminal activity, saying in a report last March that of the 1 million crude it produces, it lost around 41% to theft and pipeline sabotage. Shell said, “spills at issue happened in communities that are heavily impacted by oil theft, illegal oil refining and the sabotage of pipelines.”