Total lawsuit (re failure to respect French duty of vigilance law in operations in Uganda)
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In 2019, six civil society organisations filed a lawsuit in France against French oil company Total, for allegedly failing to comply with the duty of vigilance law in their mining project in Uganda. Total denies the allegations. The case is ongoing.
Total, an oil and gas company headquartered in France, is the main operator of a mega oil project in Lake Albert and Murchison Falls, a protected natural park in Uganda. Total plans to drill over 400 wells, extracting around 200,000 barrels of oil per day. A pipeline will be built to transport the oil. Allegedly these operations will impact communities and nature in Tanzania and Uganda.
The start of the project has displaced thousands of people, and plaintiffs claim Total has failed to properly compensate local property owners. They additionally note the plan threatens local biodiversity in the protected park.
The plaintiffs, six civil society organisations, are bringing the lawsuit under the 2017 French Duty of Vigilance law. This is the first case tested under the new rule. The law requires large French companies to establish and implement “reasonable vigilance measures adequate to identify risks and to prevent severe impacts on human rights and fundamental freedoms, on the health and safety of individuals and on the environment.”
The plaintiffs argue the vigilance plan published by Total is inadequate because it does not reference its Ugandan project and therefore violates the French law. The court will decide whether the corporation should be forced, with potential financial penalties, to review its vigilance plan and acknowledge the impact of its oil activities on local communities and the environment. Additionally, the court may also order Total to take urgent action to prevent further human rights violations or environmental damage.
Total denies the allegations and notes their Vigilance Plan “clearly identifies the risks to human rights, fundamental freedoms, human health and safety, and the environment that could result from our activities.”
On 24 June 2019, as per the duty of vigilance law, the plaintiffs filed a legal notification against Total demanding it revise its vigilance plan and the implementation of that plan for the oil project in Uganda. Total responded by rejecting the charges after the three month legal deadline, allowing the complainants to take Total to court.
On 23 October 2019 the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Nanterre, France. They requested the court order Total to conform with the duty of vigilance law and include the environmental and human rights implications of their mining project in Uganda in their vigilance plan.
On 30 January 2020, the court in Nanterre declared itself incompetent to rule on the case involving Total’s activities in Uganda and instead referred the matter to a commercial court. In March 2020, the plaintiffs appealed the decision.
On 28 October 2020, the Versailles court of appeal heard parties to the appeal. On 10 December 2020, the court of appeal found in favour of Total and remanded the case to the commercial court. The court did not rule on the merits of the case.
On 15 December 2021, France's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the claimants, rejecting the jurisdiction of the commercial courts and recognizing the jurisdiction of the civil court. This is the first legal action in France based on the law on the duty of vigilance of transnational corporations. Moreover, this decision is coherent with the provision recently adopted by French Parliament which gives jurisdiction to the Paris civil court for all cases based on the duty of vigilance law.
The civil court will now be able to examine the case on its merits.
- Oil giant Total’s ‘corporate vigilance’ in Uganda to be vetted by commercial peers, Euractiv, 31 Jan 2020
- Campaign groups accuse Total of breaching French corporate duty law in Uganda, Reuters, 25 Jun 2019
- Decision by the Court of Cassation (High Court), 15 Dec 2021
- Decision by the appeal court of Versailles, 10 Dec 2020
- Total's company response, Total, 30 Sept 2019
Friends of the Earth
- Total en Ouganda : Première action en justice sur le devoir de vigilance des multinationales : où en est-on?, Friends of the Earth France, October 2020
- French Court declares itself incompetent in favour of Commercial Court in case against Total over alleged failure to respect French Duty of Vigilance law in its operations in Uganda, Friends of the Earth International, 31 Jan 2020
- Historic legal action against Total in France for operations in Uganda, Friends of the Earth International, 28 Oct 2019
- Oil company Total faces historic legal action in France for human rights and environmental violations in Uganda, Friends of the Earth France, 23 Oct 2019