Royal Dutch Shell is liable for the damage caused by oil spills in Nigeria, an appeals court in the Hague said in a verdict announced on Friday.
The environmental group Milieudefensie and four Nigerian farmers brought this case against Shell. The amount in damages that Shell will have to pay is to be decided at a later date.
The statement sparked intense emotions among the plaintiffs and their supporters. “People are in tears. They cry with happiness, “said Donald Pols, director of Milieudefensie. “This is fantastic news for all people in developing countries. Now it appears that they are not without rights to defend themselves against the behaviour of multinationals.”
Thirteen years ago, four Nigerian farmers filed a lawsuit with Milieudefensie against Shell. The farmers’ lands and fish ponds had been heavily polluted by oil spills from Shell pipelines, the complaint alleged. They accused Shell of failing to stop the spills in time and refusing clean up the pollution, and asked for damages.
Shell argued that the spills were the result of sabotage and that they were denied access to the villagers’ area. They were therefore unable to stop the leak in time. In addition, they received many false reports of spills. Therefore, Shell wanted to make sure there was a leak before closing the pipeline. It sometimes took days before they could inspect the pipelines, and so the leaks reportedly did more damage.
The farmers claimed that they could no longer earn a living on the polluted lands.
Friday’s decision went a step further than a 2013 ruling by a lower court, saying that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was responsible for multiple cases of oil pollution.
The appeals court said Shell had not proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that the oil spills had been caused by sabotage, rather than poor maintenance.
The Court has not yet ruled on the case of a third pollution. There, the Court finds sabotage proven, but it still has questions about the extent to which Shell is liable. The court still wants to know whether Shell had done enough to protect the pipeline against sabotage.
The amount of compensation for the four farmers, two of whom have since died, must be determined in a separate procedure. “These families have been forced into poverty by Shell. It is a very clear signal that it is now over,” said Donald Pols.
Shell has been asked to install an oil spill detection system in the area where the farmers had lands.
Shell said in a statement that it is “disappointed” by the ruling. “We still think the oil spills we have been blamed for are the result of sabotage,” said a Shell Nigeria spokesman. Shell is not liable for the damage in the event of sabotage. The oil giant claims that it cleans up all pollution caused by oil spills, and that it is looking, together with other stakeholders, such as the local communities, for a structural solution to the oil spills and the consequences for people and the environment.