A Dutch appeal court in The Hague has ruled that the Nigerian branch of Shell has to pay compensation to some Nigerian farmers who have been litigating against the company for 13 years.
The court reached the decision today. The amount of compensation must be determined later, a Dutch newspaper reported.
According to the ruling, Shell is liable for two oil spills.
The case also revolved around a third claim, but the court will only rule on that later.
The third leak was caused by sabotage and the court needs additional information to know whether Shell has done enough to secure the pipeline against the sabotage.
Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of The Earth, brought the lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of four Nigerian farmers.
The case revolved around the spills from underground oil pipelines.
According to the plaintiffs, their villages have become virtually unliveable due to the spills.
The polluted soil became unusable and fishing grounds were lost, causing them to lose their income.
Shell said that the spills are the result of sabotage and that the company is therefore not liable for them.
The company also argued that the pollution is always cleaned up properly, while the farmers say that hardly anything ends up in practice.
Milieudefensie argued that pipelines are often outdated and that Shell is doing too little to prevent sabotage.
At first instance, in 2013, one of the farmers was proved right by the court.
The other farmers’ demands were rejected. Both camps filed an appeal.
Today’s judgment can also still be appealed at the Dutch Supreme Court.
The case has set a legal precedence in how far multinationals in the Netherlands can be held responsible for actions of their overseas subsidiaries.
Royal Dutch Shell argues that saboteurs are responsible for leaks in underground oil pipes that have polluted the delta. The company also argued that it should not be held legally responsible in the Netherlands for the actions of a foreign subsidiary.
In 2013, The Hague District Court ordered Shell Nigeria to compensate one of the four farmers involved in the case for making it too easy for saboteurs to open a well head that leaked onto his land. However, the court cleared Shell of blame in pollution of the other three farmers’ land and ruled that Shell’s Dutch parent company could not be held liable.
Both sides appealed and judges ruled in 2015 that Shell could be held to account in Dutch courts for its actions in Nigeria.
The judges also ordered Shell to give the plaintiffs access to documents that could shed more light on the cause of the leaks and how much Shell management knew about them.
Shell discovered and started exploiting Nigeria’s vast oil reserves in the late 1950s and has faced heavy criticism over the years from activists and local communities over spills and for its close ties to government security forces.
Friends of the Earth, which is supporting the Nigerian farmers in their legal battle, argues that leaking pipes are caused by poor maintenance and inadequate security and that Shell does not do enough to clean up spills.