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Nigerian farmers can sue Shell — UK court

February 12, 2021

Britain's Supreme Court has ruled that more than 40,000 people can make claims against the European energy giant following decades of oil spills in the Niger Delta region.

A Nigerian farmer shows his hand covered in oil from a creek
The UK's Supreme Court has said that Nigerian farmers and fishermen have a high chance of success in their lawsuit against ShellImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. van Dijl

A group of Nigerian farmers and fishermen can sue Royal Dutch Shell PLC in English courts over pollution from decades of oil spills,  Britain's highest court ruled on Friday.

Five justices on the UK's Supreme Court said the Anglo-Dutch firm may owe a "duty of care'' to the claimants over the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary. Shell had argued that it was not responsible.

Friday's ruling overturns a 2017 decision against the Ogale and Bille communities of Nigeria's Niger Delta, who brought legal claims for compensation and clean-up costs following decades of repeated spills in the oil-rich region.

Justice 'unlikely in Nigeria'

The claimants argued that they could not expect justice in a Nigerian court and that the case against Shell and its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), should be heard in London.

The claimants allege their lives and health have suffered because repeated oil spills have contaminated the land, swamps, groundwater and waterways and that there has been no adequate cleaning or remedial action.

In its ruling on Friday, the court said a lower appeals court had "materially erred in law'' when it ruled against the claimants. The Supreme Court justices said the appeal had "a real prospect of success."

Daniel Leader, a partner at the farmers' firm of lawyers, Leigh Day, hailed the decision as a "watershed moment."

"Increasingly, impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so," Leader added.

Shell blames sabotage

Shell said it was disappointed with the ruling. The energy giant has blamed sabotage for oil spills and says crude oil spills caused by theft surged by 41% in 2019.

"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,” Shell said in a statement.

Oil floats on Nigeria's River Bodo
Oil continues to be visible on Nigerian rivers following oil spills a decade agoImage: AFP/Y. Chiba

The UK decision follows two weeks after the Netherlands ordered Shell to compensate Nigerian farmers for oil spills on land in two Delta villages. The Dutch ruling comes after 13 years of legal battles.

In 2015, Shell agreed to pay out 55 million pounds ($83.4 million) to the Bodo community in Nigeria in compensation for two oil spills, which was the largest ever out-of-court settlement relating to Nigerian oil spills.

The UK court also made a seminal ruling nearly two years ago in a case involving mining company Vedanta.

The decision allowed nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers to sue Vedanta in England for alleged pollution in Africa. Vedanta ultimately settled out of court in January.

mm/dj (AFP, AP, Reuters)