The Dutch Court of Appeal today ruled that Shell Oil Company could be sued in the Netherlands for oil spills arising from the company’s operations in Nigeria. In addition, the court ordered Shell to give lawyers for plaintiffs access to documents that potentially shed light on the factors behind the leaks as well as whether the firm’s top executives knew about the leaks and their impact. 

Today’s ruling improved the prospects of the court ruling on the question of whether Shell is liable for years of oil spills in the Niger Delta. These spills have caused both economic harm and environmental devastation to residents. 

A press statement released today offered a summary of the landmark verdict by the Court of Appeal sitting in The Hague. Sunny Ofehe, a Nigerian environmental and human rights activist, witnessed the proceedings at The Hague. Mr. Ofehe of the Hope for Niger Delta Campaign hailed the court’s ruling as “a historical verdict and a reward for the doggedness of the poor Niger Delta farmers who have spent years searching for justice and compensation.” He added, “I salute the courage of the Dutch court and hopefully the search for proper justice can begin.”

Behind the case against Shell are four Nigerian farmers who are seeking compensation from the multinational firm for extensive damage they sustained as a result of oil leakages from Shell’s underground pipelines and an oil well between 2004 and 2007. The plaintiffs are also demanding that the oil company invest more effort in cleaning up its widespread pollution and preventing further spillage. A group called Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth International, joined the farmers as plaintiffs in the case.

Channa Samkalden, a lawyer representing the farmers and Friends of the Earth, described the lawsuit as “every respect a landmark case.”

Shell responded to the lawsuit by rejecting liability, claiming that the leaks resulted from sabotage. The company also argued that, under Nigerian law, the firm had no liability. Besides, the firm’s lawyers contended that the company had adequately cleaned up the pollution. 

The lawsuit is against both Shell’s Dutch parent company and the operating company in Nigeria. The lawsuit was filed at The Hague in the Netherlands where the oil company’s parent company has its corporate headquarters. 

Lawyers representing Shell argued that the fact the parent company’s offices are located at the Hague was not a sufficient ground for the Dutch court to assume jurisdiction in the case. The company argued that the claims against the Dutch parent company were bound to fail, contending that legal proceedings should have been instituted in Nigeria, where the leaks and alleged damage happened. 

In a remarkable disagreement with the firm’s position, the Dutch Court of Appeal ruled that it could not establish in advance that the parent company was not liable for possible negligence by the Nigerian operating company. The court therefore approved the combination of the lawsuit against the parent company and its Nigerian subsidiary. 

The Court of Appeal also decided that it was too early to assume that the leaks were caused by sabotage. It therefore ordered Shell to give the plaintiffs access to documents relating to the spills as well as corporate knowledge of their causes and impact. The court however imposed conditions on access to these documents, since they may contain confidential business information. The most important condition is that the documents should be provided for inspection at the office of a notary public. In addition, the court ruled that the plaintiffs, the four farmers and Milieudefensie, must bear the financial expense of inspecting the documents. In addition, only lawyers representing both parties as well as the judges would have access to the documents. 

Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth praised the court’s ruling as “a landslide victory for environmentalists and these four brave Nigerian farmers who, for more than seven years, have had the courage to take on one of the most powerful companies in the world. This ruling is a ray of hope for other victims of environmental degradation, human rights violations and other misconduct by large corporations.”

One of the farmers, Alali Efanga, said, “This ruling offers hope that Shell will finally begin to restore the soil around my village so that I will once again be able to take up farming and fishing on my own land.”

 

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