Update 25 July 2019 Leave to appeal to the Supreme Court has been refused (unlike Okpabi, where it has been allowed yesterday).
Update 21 September 2018 further litigation on similar issues is underway in Gemfield [AAA and others v Gemfields Plc and Montepuez Ruby Mining Limitada]. See overview of issues here. Update 7 October 2020 the claim was settled in January 2019.
The Court of Appeal in  EWCA Civ 1532 has confirmed the High Court’s approach in  EWHC 371 (QB) AAA et al v Unilever and Unilever Tea Kenya ltd, holding that there is no good arguable case (the civil law notion of fumus boni iuris comes closes, as Bobek AG notes in Feniks) against Unilever, which could then be used to anchor the case in the English jurisdiction.
Pro memoria: jurisdiction against Unilever is clear, following Article 4 Brussels I Recast. That Regulation’s anchor mechanism however is not engaged for Article 7(1) does not apply against non-EU based defendants. It is residual English private international law that governs this issue.
Appellants appeal in relation to the High Court’s ruling that neither Unilever nor UTKL (the Kenyan subsidiary) owed the appellants a duty of care. Unilever has put in a respondent’s notice to argue that the judge should have found that there was no duty of care owed by Unilever on the additional ground that, contrary to her view, there was no proximity between Unilever and the appellants in respect of the damage suffered by them, according to the guidance in Chandler v Cape Plc. Unilever and UTKL also sought to challenge that part of the judgment in which the judge held that, if viable claims in tort existed against Unilever (as anchor defendant) and UTKL, England is the appropriate place for trial of those claims. Unilever also cross-appealed in relation to a previous case management decision by the judge, by which she declined an application by Unilever that the claim against it should be stayed on case management grounds, until after a trial had taken place in Kenya of the appellants claims against UTKL.
The legal analysis by Sales LJ takes a mere five paragraphs (para 35 onwards). Most of the judgment is taken up by an (equally succinct) overview of risk management policies within the group.
At 35 Sales LJ notes ‘Having set out the relevant factual background in relation to the proximity issue (i.e. whether the appellants have any properly arguable case against Unilever in the light of Chandler v Cape Plc and related authorities), the legal analysis can proceed much more shortly. It is common ground that principles of English law govern this part of the case.‘
– the ‘common ground’ presumably being lex loci incorporationis.
This is an interesting part of the judgment for I find it by no means certain that English law should govern this part of the case. In one of my chapters for professor Vinuales’ en Dr Lees’ forthcoming OUP book on comparative environmental law, I expand on that point.
The long and the short of the argument is that Unilever did not intervene in the affairs of its subsidiary in a more intensive way than a third party would have done. Reference at 37 is made to the contrasting examples given by Sir Geoffrey Vos in Okpabi, ‘One can imagine … circumstances where the necessary proximity could be established, even absent the kind of specific facts that existed in Vedanta … Such a case might include the situation, for example, where a parent required its subsidiaries or franchisees to manufacture or fabricate a product in a particular way, and actively enforced that requirement, which turned out to be harmful to health. One might suggest a food product that injured many, but was created according to a prescriptive recipe provided by the parent. …’
and, at 38, to the raison d’être of mother /daughter structures,
“… it would be surprising if a parent company were to go to the trouble of establishing a network of overseas subsidiaries with their own management structures it if intended itself to assume responsibility for the operations of each of those subsidiaries. The corporate structure itself tends to militate against the requisite proximity …
– subject evidently to proof of the opposite in the facts at issue (a test seemingly not met here).
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Heading 8.3.
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