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U.K. High Court Says Nigerians Can Sue Shell in Britain Over Oil Spills

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LONDON – The UK Supreme Court said Friday that a group of around 50,000 Nigerian farmers and fishermen could bring proceedings in the London High Court against Royal Dutch Shell for years of oil spills in the Niger Delta that have polluted their land, wells and waterways.

The judges said there was potential for a parent company like Shell, which is headquartered in the Netherlands but has a large UK presence, to be responsible for the activities of subsidiaries like Shell Petroleum Development Company from Nigeria, which are based in the Delta Region operates.

The court overruled a lower court that said there was no case against Shell in the UK. On Friday the judges said it was “a real problem that needs to be tried”.

The ruling marks “a turning point in the accountability of multinational corporations,” said Daniel Leader, partner at Leigh Day, a UK law firm who led the Nigerian communities’ legal team. Mr Leader added that the ruling would likely increase the ability of “impoverished communities” to hold powerful companies accountable. Indeed, courts in Western countries have recently indicated that they are increasingly open to such cases. Last month, a Dutch court ruled that Shell was responsible for pollution in another case involving Nigerian farmers.

The Ogale and Bille peoples who bring the case in the UK say their lives have been dragged by years of damage from oil spills from Shell-operated pipelines. Mr Leader said they would make their claims in the UK as the chances of success in Nigerian courts were slim, as few lawyers would take a case and local potentates could potentially claim money from a judgment. He said local people do not have access to legal representation and that it would likely take decades for them to reach a conclusion if they brought a case forward.

“At this point everyone is dead,” said Leader.

Shell routinely blames sabotage and criminal activity for the damage. According to Shell, Nigerian law must pay compensation for spills caused by operational problems, but not for damage caused by sabotage.

“The spills in question occurred in communities that have been severely affected by oil theft, illegal oil refining and sabotage of pipelines,” a company spokeswoman said in an email on Friday.

Mr Leader said a case is now likely to be filed against Shell in the UK, despite suggesting that the oil company could give more room to legal maneuver on jurisdiction issues. If Shell doesn’t level off, the case will likely last two or three years, he said. Declining to provide an estimate of the damage the Nigerian plaintiffs could claim, he said the main problem was forcing Shell to clean up the spills, which he believed Shell had not done.

“These communities are chronically polluted. It affects every aspect of their daily life, ”he said.

Shell said the company’s subsidiary in Nigeria is cleaning up the mess “whatever the cause”.

The company is also gradually selling its properties in the Delta, preferring to do offshore drilling away from home.

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Robert Dunfee