Supreme Court unanimously rules that claims on behalf of 50,000 Nigerian villagers against Royal Dutch Shell must proceed to trial


In a landmark judgment in HRH Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell Plc [2021] UKSC 3, the Supreme Court has today unanimously ruled that claims against Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDS) brought by approximately 50,000 inhabitants of two rural communities in the Niger Delta must proceed to a full trial. The claimants allege that RDS negligently failed to prevent its Nigerian subsidiary, The Shell Petroleum Company of Nigeria (SPDC), from causing extensive environmental damage to thousands of hectares of land and waterways as a result of numerous oil spills from its oil pipelines and infrastructure in the Niger Delta over many years.

In 2016 the High Court ruled that the claims should be struck out on the basis the claimants had no real prospect of success against RDS.  In 2018 the Court of Appeal held that the High Court had made multiple errors in its analysis of the evidence, but nonetheless proceeded to hold (by a majority) that the claims against RDS did not have a real prospect of succeeding.

In today’s judgment, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the majority of the Court of Appeal had made multiple errors of law and multiple errors in their analysis of the evidence, and had conducted an impermissible “mini trial”.  After examining and explaining the principles concerning parent company liability set out by the Supreme Court in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources Plc [2019] UKSC 20, the Supreme Court held that the claim against RDS was “clearly triable” and that the claims must therefore proceed to a full trial on the merits (including cross-examination of RDS witnesses and disclosure of internal RDS documents).

Richard Hermer QC and Edward Craven have represented the claimants throughout the proceedings in Okpabi v RDS and represented the successful claimants at all stages of the proceedings in Lungowe v Vedanta.   Copies of the Supreme Court’s judgments in Okpabi and Vedanta are available here and here. A copy of the Supreme Court’s press summary of the Okpabi judgment is also available here.