Shell lawsuit (re oil spills & Ogale & Bille communities in Nigeria - Okpabi v Shell)
In 2015, the Ogale and Bille Nigerian communities respectively filed claims against the UK Company Royal Dutch Shell in UK High Court. Plaintiffs consist of 42,500 residents of Nigeria who seek remedy for extensive oil pollution which affected their livelihoods and the environment. The case is ongoing.
On 14 October and 22 December 2015, the Ogale and Bille Nigerian communities respectively filed claims against the UK company Royal Dutch Shell plc (hereinafter Shell) and its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in the UK High Court. Both claims were brought by law firm Leigh Day on behalf of around 42,500 residents and citizens of Nigeria who seek remedy for extensive oil pollution which considerably affected their livelihoods and the environment.
The claimants argue that Shell failed to adequately prevent oil spills and subsequently to conduct proper clean-up in order to avoid serious contamination of agricultural lands and waterways.
On 2 March 2016, the Technology and Construction Court gave permission to the claimants to sue Shell in England, and ruled that formal legal proceedings could proceed to the next stage in the London High Court. The company challenged both communities’ lawsuits, arguing that pipeline sabotage and illegal refining had been the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta, and that the cases should be heard in Nigeria instead of the UK.
On 26 January 2017, the High Court held that the communities could not seek redress against Shell in English courts. The Judge concluded that there was not sufficient evidence that Shell exercised a high degree of oversight, control or direction over SPDC, and therefore that the parent company had no legal responsibility for pollution by its Nigerian subsidiary. The claimants appealed this decision, arguing that the Judge reached this conclusion before disclosure of relevant documents or hearing witnesses about the relationship between Shell and SPDC.
On 14 February 2018, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s ruling, with a majority of judges holding that the parent company did not hold a duty of care towards affected communities.
Following the dismissal, the claimants announced their intention to bring the case to the UK Supreme Court. On 27 April 2018, over 40 UK and international human rights, development and environmental NGOs submitted a letter to the Supreme Court supporting the claimants’ application to appeal. They asserted that the Appeal Court’s judgment could greatly limit access to justice for people harmed by UK companies’ international operations. On 9 July 2018, the Supreme Court announced that the Appeal Panel had decided to defer consideration of the claimants’ application to appeal until judgment is given in a similar parent company liability case being examined at the Supreme Court, namely Vedanta Resources PLC and another (Appellants) v Lungowe and others (Respondents).
In May 2019, civil society organizations asked the UK Supreme Court to allow the fishing communities to appeal against the 2017 ruling saying that Shell did not hold a duty of care towards affected communities. In July 2019, the UK Supreme Court granted permission to appeal.
On 12 May 2020, claimants filed an appeal with the UK Supreme Court. They argue that Royal Dutch Shell owes them a common law duty of care in respect to the extensive environmental harmed caused by their business operations in Nigeria. Further, they note denying claimants the opportunity to have these claims tried on their merits would cause a grave injustice to the communities harmed by Shell's operations. The International Commission of Jurists, The Corporate Responsibility Coalition Limited, and Corner House Research submitted written requests to the Supreme Court to intervene in the case.
On 12 February 2021, the Supreme Court allowed the appeal and ruled that the case against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary can proceed in the UK courts. Notably, the Court's decision determines that there is a good arguable case that Shell is legally responsible for the systemic pollution affecting the Ogale and Bille communities.
In July 2021, it was revealed that Shell did not contest the English courts' jurisdiction, and that its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC will be joined to the claims.
On 27 January 2023, over 11 000 people and 17 institutions from Ogale, Nigeria joined over 2 000 people from the Bille community in their individual claims that seek compensation for individual loss of livelihoods due to the ongoing water pollution and health impact. These individual claims are in addition to the 2015 claims by both communities about the clean-up and remediation.The High Court held a multi-day hearing on, among other things, Shell's legal liability.
In November 2023, the High Court ruled that the individuals' claims of human rights abuses could proceed in the UK justice system. The judge found it was arguable that oil pollution violated the individuals' legally protected rights to a clean and healthy environment. Shell claims it has no legal responsibility for the pollution, asserting the blame falls on its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC). In response to the ruling, a Shell spokesperson said “We strongly believe in the merits of our case. Oil is being stolen on an industrial scale in the Niger delta. This criminality is a major source of pollution and is the cause of the majority of spills in the Bille and Ogale claims." A hearing is scheduled for 12 or 13 December 2023 for further legal arguments.
The full trial is expected in 2024.
-"Shell to face human rights claims in UK over chronic oil pollution in Niger delta", The Guardian, 23 Nov 2023
-"Niger Delta communities back in High Court to fight Shell’s further attempt to delay legal case", Leigh Day, 24 Jul 2023
-"Nearly 14,000 Nigerians take Shell to court over devastating impact of pollution", Sandra Laville, Guardian (UK), 2 Feb 2023
-"Shell abandons push for oil spill case to be heard in Nigeria, Bloomberg", 12 Jul 2021
- "Shell in Nigeria: Polluted communities 'can sue in English courts'", BBC News, 13 Feb 2021
- "Supreme Court rules that polluted Nigerian communities can sue Royal Dutch Shell in the English courts", Leigh Day, 12 Feb 2021
- "UK Supreme Court to hear Nigerians' case for pursuing Shell spill claim in England", 24 July 2019
- "Nigerian fishermen fight for permission to appeal oil pollution ruling", The Times (UK), 30 April 2018
- "Appeal court rules Nigerians cannot pursue Shell spill claim in England", Reuters, 14 February 2018
- "Court of Appeal to hear Nigerian villagers' pollution claims against Shell", Leigh Day, 21 November 2017
- "UK court hears appeal in Shell Nigeria oil spill case", Al Jazeera (Qatar), 21 November 2017
- "Shell battles Nigerian communities in high-stakes London lawsuit", Reuters, 6 January 2017
- "Shell Fights Lawsuits Over Environmental Record in Nigeria", Morning Star Advisor, 19 November 2016
- “40,000 Nigerians take Shell to UK court over oil spills", Nigeria Today, 16 November 2016
- “Two new legal actions launched against Shell over Nigerian oil pollution”, Leigh Day, 1 March 2016
- Nigeria: Shell must clean up devastating oil spills in the Niger Delta, Amnesty International, 2 Feb 2023
- "CORE and ICJ welcome landmark UK Supreme Court decision - Nigerian claimants can pursue environmental devastation allegations against Shell in UK courts", CORE & the International Commission of Jurists, 12 Feb 2021
- “Seeking justice: the rising tide of court cases against Shell”, Amnesty International, May 2018
- Court of Appeal Decisions Threatens to Close Route to Justice, CORE Coalition (UK), 1 May 2018
- UK Supreme Court should allow 40.000 Nigerian villagers appeal a ruling that leaves victims of Shell's oil spills without remedy, civil society demands, European Coalition for Corporate Justice, 30 April 2018
- "UK Court of Appeal Rules Royal Dutch Shell Not Liable for Nigeria Oil Spills", CORE Coalition, 15 February 2018
- "UK: Shell ruling could give green light to corporations for abuses abroad", Amnesty International, 23 January 2017
UK Supreme court judgment, 12 Feb 2021
Okpabi and Others v Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria LTD and Alame and others v Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria LTD, Court of Appeal (Civil Division), 14 February 2018
Okpabi and Others v Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria LTD, High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division, 26 January 2017