UK court hears case against Shell on behalf of 40,000 Nigerians

November 23, 2016 | Company Operations, Health, Safety & Environment, Nigeria

London, UK | – A legal case on behalf of more than 40,000 Nigerians against multinational oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell has started in the High Court in London.

Lawyers for the Nigerian claimants want the High Court to rule that a compensation hearing can be conducted in London. Royal Dutch Shell maintains the case should be heard in Nigerian courts.

The hearing before Justice Fraser, expected to finish on Thursday, is hearing legal arguments on whether the British courts can hear two legal claims on behalf of Nigerians against Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC), for extensive environmental damage caused by oil pollution to two separate communities in the Niger Delta.

One claim is being brought on behalf of 2 335 individuals from the Bille Kingdom of Nigeria who are mostly fishermen and claim their environment has been devastated by oil spills over the past five years.

The second claim is brought on behalf of the Ogale Community in Ogoniland which consists of roughly 40 000 people. The community claimed it has been subject to repeated oil spills from Shell’s pipelines over a number of years which have still not been cleaned up. Pollution affecting the Ogale community was documented by the United Nations Environment Programme in a report published in 2011.

In March 2016, the Technology and Construction Court agreed that the two legal cases could proceed to the next stage through the London High Court, where the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, is based.

Lawyers for the Nigerians communities argued that Royal Dutch Shell controls and directs its’ Nigerian subsidiary and should ensure that its operations do not systematically pollute the environment.

Both Royal Dutch Shell and Shell Nigeria argue that the cases should be heard in Nigeria and not in Britain.

The two separate legal actions are being brought by London-based law firm Leigh Day who represented the Bodo community against Shell in an unprecedented environmental claim, resulting in Shell agreeing to pay compensation package of 55 million pounds (US$68.2 million to the community and 15,600 Nigerian fishermen whose livelihoods had been destroyed by Shell’s oil pollution.

Leigh Day lawyers said hundreds of Niger Delta communities remain blighted by oil pollution.

According to the legal action, creeks, mangroves and island communities in Bille have been devastated by oil since the replacement of the Bille Section of a pipeline in 2010. It is alleged that 13,200 hectares of mangrove have been damaged by oil spilled from the Bille Pipelines and Infrastructure, the largest loss of mangrove habitat in the history of oil spills.

The key issue in the claim will be whether Shell can be held liable for failing to protect their pipelines from damage caused by third parties. Shell has always maintained that allegations concerning Nigerian plaintiffs in dispute with a Nigerian company, over issues which took place in Nigeria, should be heard in Nigeria.

It has argued that Royal Dutch Shell should not be held liable for all the activities of more than 1,000 subsidiary companies worldwide.

Media in London described the hearing as a test case that could open the floodgates to more multinationals being sued in London courts.

Meanwhile, embattled Anglo-Dutch multinational oil and gas company, Shell, has challenged two class action suits brought against the company on Tuesday in London by two communities in Nigeria’s Niger Delta accusing Shell of contaminating their water bodies.

Shell wants the cases heard in Nigeria where their local subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) is based, instead of London and the Hague they are incorporated.

The lawyer for Shell and SPDC, Peter Goldsmith, told the high court of Great Britain that the alleged material damage was in Nigeria and that the plaintiffs were trying to “persuade an English court to exercise jurisdiction over the SPDC, a Nigerian company based in Nigeria and still operating exclusively in Nigeria.”

The plaintiffs, who are over 40,000 inhabitants of Ogale and Bille communities, alleged that oil spills from Shell pipelines contaminated their water bodies and polluted their lands thereby causing diseases.

The Chief of Ogale, Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, who was present at the hearing, told AFP in an interview that “Shell is Nigeria, as much as Nigeria is Shell, and you are not going to win against Shell in a Nigerian court.

“People in my community are suffering from strange diseases, some suffer from skin diseases and infertility, while others died suddenly,” he said.

Shell also challenged the accusations pointing out that “Bille and Ogale are both hard hit by oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refineries causing the major pollution in the Niger Delta.”

In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay over $ 80 million to 15,600 fishermen from Bodo after a three-year legal battle. The Nigerian community was hit by two major oil spills in 2008.