Esther Kiobel v Shell. Dutch Court takes strict evidentiary approach in its rejection of Shell Nigeria involvement in bribery.

The Dutch court of first instance held at the end of March (English version of the judgment is here) on the merits of Esther Kiobel’s case against Shell, proceedings which she unsuccessfully tried to bring in the US under the ATS and then pursued in The Netherlands as I reported at the time.

In my earlier post I pointed out that the Dutch court narrowly construed the case that could be pursued in the Netherlands: Only limited claims, of the Nigerian daughter’s involvement in the bribing of witnesses, were allowed to continue. Those claims have now been dismissed.

The judgment is fairly succinct, many points having discussed at length in the interim jurisdictional and case-management decision. Witnesses’ recent interviews (by the Dutch courts, but without cross-examination. Not because it was not offered but because counsel did not feel the need to proceed with it) were cross-checked against earlier statements which had been entered as evidence in the US proceedings. The court [2.26] holds that

the alleged involvement of the SPDC in witness bribery is not proven with the statements of the witnesses produced by the claimants. This is also true when viewing these witness statements in conjunction.

As I pointed out here in reply to Lucas Roorda, if I were claimant’s counsel looking for appeal grounds, I would study the Dutch court’s application of Nigerian common law evidentiary standards for upholding civil liability.

The court’s approach to the witness statements is that they cannot sustain SPDC bribery involvement. The evidence of SPDC staff presence at relevant meetings (often in police stations) is, when not held to be factually (albeit on minor points) contradicted by earlier statements (going back 20 years for some of them), found to be circumstantial only. Witnesses point to people that were referred and /or pointed to when Shell-related employment (as a reward) was discussed, briefcases held by people with the outward, corporate appearance of Shell staff, people driving off in cars with corporate stickers formerly used by Shell. None of this satisfied the court’s evidentiary requirements without however proper discussion of what, under Nigerian law, that standard would require.

Geert.

 

The European Commission’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence proposal. Some thoughts on the conflict of laws.

Update06 06 2022 see further comments by Rui Dias here.

I have reported on conflict of laws (jurisdictional and applicable law) angles to the EP’s draft proposals on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence before. As I discuss in those posts (more analysis is on NOVA’s site here), many of the suggested routes created more difficulties than they solved. In the eventual February proposal (with 71 recitals: that is poor legislative drafting), the conflict of laws ambitions are much reduced. Leigh Day have a good summary of the issues here. Thank you Jorian Hamster for poking me to put my thoughts to paper.

The jurisdictional ambition is now merely expressed in terms of regulatory scope. On p.15 under the proportionality assessment, the proposal justifies its public international scope using the effects doctrine:

The EU turnover criterion for third-country companies creates a link to the EU. Including only turnover generated in the Union is justified since such a threshold, appropriately calibrated, creates a territorial connection between the third-country companies and the Union by the effects that the activities of these companies may have on the EU internal market, which is sufficient for the Union law to apply to third-country companies.

Proposed A2(1) focuses on ‘EU corporations’ (“companies which are formed in accordance with the legislation of a Member State) and proposed A2(2) looks at non-EU corporations (“companies which are formed in accordance with the legislation of a third country”), each with relevant thresholds distinguishing between quantitative (turnover) and qualitative (risk sectors: textiles, agriculture, extractive industries) criteria.

I am not sure why the lex incorporationis is preferred as the trigger criterion. Domicile as defined in Brussels Ia‘s Article 63 could be more attractive, seeing as it captures corporations with statutory seat outside of the EU but with their central administration or principal place of business here.

‘Turnover generated in the EU’ is bound to provoke some discussions however experience from in particular competition law should be able to help here.

The most obvious anchor point for applicable law is proposed A22. This sets out the requirement for Member States to define rules governing the civil liability of the company for damages arising due to its failure to comply with the due diligence requirements, and then suggests in (5)

Member States shall ensure that the liability provided for in provisions of national law transposing this Article is of overriding mandatory application in cases where the law applicable to claims to that effect is not the law of a Member State.

The intention of this Article is to make the national civil liability rules which Member States are due to ensure in follow-up of the future Directive, so-called ‘overriding mandatory law’ aka ‘lois de police’ aka ‘lois d’application immédiate’ under A16 Rome II. The challenge for the EU to harmonise private law, such as civil liability rules, shows in this formulation. The EC makes recourse to a Directive, not a Regulation, since (p.17)

The proposed instrument is a Directive, since Article 50 TFEU is the legal basis for company law legislation regarding the protection of the interests of companies’ members and others with a view to making such protection equivalent throughout the Union. Article 50 TFEU requires the European Parliament and the Council to act by means of directives.

Hence rather than formulating the future Directive’s liability provisions itself as of overriding EU law nature (a possibility expressly foreseen in Rome I’s rules on applicable law for contracts, but not impossible I believe within Rome II), the Directive will oblige Member States to ensure the lois de police character of their future rules implementing the Directive.

I understand the difficulty yet I think the proposal could shortcut the discussion (and avoid difficulties in case a Member State fails to declare the lois de police nature) by declaring

‘Member States’ provisions of national liability law transposing this Article are of overriding mandatory application in cases where the law applicable to claims to that effect is not the law of a Member State.’

(the latter, in my proposal struck through part I believe is simply redundant).

In claims based on tortious liability, the Directive is most likely to be used to help establish fault (by action or omission). The remainder of the action (solidarity between various tortfeasors, damage calculation etc) will remain subject to the lex causae otherwise applicable. In claims based on unjust enrichment (a business and human rights route much worth exploring for supply chain cases) the Directive will most likely remain of smaller use seeing as these claims do not aim to establish liability, however the  paper trail which the Directive will ensure, may be of documentary use here, too.

Geert.

High Court refuses capped cost order for English corporate defendant in Malawi sexual exploitation case, emphasising access to justice. Noli sequitur forum non arguments dress up as cost application.

Update 25 February 2022 Lord Justice Coulson today refused permission to appeal:  [2022] EWCA Civ 233.

Cavanagh J (unusually assisted by Brown J, who has extensive experience in cost orders) last week in Thomas & Ors v PGI Group Ltd [2021] EWHC 2776 (QB) refused to grant a ‘Capped Cost Order’, ‘Cost Capping Order’ or CCO (these also exist for judicial review proceedings and in arbitration). This application for a CCO was reportedly the first made under CPR 3.19.

In the case, brought before Brexit date under Article 4 Brussels Ia, a group of Malawi claimants are suing tea company Lujeri’s English parent company PGI alleging complicity in exploitation and abuse, including sexual abuse.  Claimants allege the Defendant owed a duty of care to them on the basis that it promulgated relevant policies, standards and guidelines, that it exercised supervision and control over Lujeri, and/or that it held itself out as exercising such supervision and control. The Claimants further allege that the Defendant breached that duty of care and that they suffered loss and damage as a result.

English proceedings against Lujeri were dropped following claimants’ admission that they were unlikely to meet a jurisdiction challenge against same on the basis of Malawi being the natural forum for that claim [14]. The defendant does not resist A4 jurisdiction, acknowledges the UK is the natural forum for the claims against it, that there is no abuse of process (neither in my view have any place in A4 jurisdiction) and that the case is at least arguable.

Had the CCO been granted, it would have the effect of limiting the future costs recoverable by the Claimants, should they ultimately be successful, to £150,000 (or thereabouts). It would not impact the recoverable costs of the defendants if they are successful, although [25] they are unlikely to be able to recover any. As the judge notes [13] even if the core claim is successful, compensation will be far below parties’ legal costs in the case. The non-financial, ‘vindication’ [13] objectives are more important.

Despite defendants’ acknowledgment that a jurisdiction challenge is effectively impossible under A4 (A33-34 do not seem engaged), their arguments for a CCO [28 ff] are forum non via the backdoor:

Whilst not disputing that the Claimants are entitled to bring these proceedings against the Defendant in England, the Defendant submits that it is still open to the Claimants to bring proceedings in Malawi against Lujeri, their former, or, in some cases, their current, employer, and, indeed, against the Defendant. The Defendant submits that it would be more appropriate for the Claimants to bring their claims against Lujeri, in Malawi, especially as such claims would be advanced on the simple and straightforward basis of vicarious liability, rather than on the basis of a more complicated claim against the UK-domiciled parent company.

At 43 claimants make the obvious point that this is a ‘(lightly) disguised attempt to strike out these proceedings on the basis that they are an abuse of process, or that England is a forum non conveniens’.

At 72 the judge holds that claimants are right that it would not be appropriate, having regard to the CPR required principle of proportionality [‘the overriding objective [of the CCO, GAVC] of enabling the court to deal with cases justly and at proportionate cost’] to cap the costs at a figure that is less than the minimum costs that are required for them to litigate their claims effectively in the High Court. Costs in other words cannot be disproportionately incurred if they are below the amount that is required by the party to litigate its claims effectively, unless [74] parties’ costs are out of proportion to the potential benefits to the Claimant of the litigation’ – quod non in casu: [79]: ‘The sums that are likely to be recoverable, though small by English standards, are very significant for poor Malawian plantation workers, and they may indeed be life-changing. I accept the Claimants’ submission that in any event, the Claimants’ objectives in bringing these proceedings are not entirely, or even principally, about money.’

At 82-83 the resurrected forum non arguments feature again,  with the judge holding

In any event, in the present case, one of the parties, the Defendant, is domiciled in England. It is a matter of public importance in this country whether a company that is domiciled here is in breach of a duty of care to workers on plantations in Malawi, owned by a subsidiary company. CPR 44.3(5)(e) states that the extent to which a claim is in the public interest is a matter to be taken into account when considering proportionality.

That is an important consideration for future CCOs, outside the Brussels Ia context and indeed an argument that would feed into an A33-34 analysis, too.

At 91 ff the judge reinforces his findings on the basis of access to justice:

‘I think that it is highly significant, in this regard, that the imposition of a CCO would almost certainly have the effect of forcing the Claimants to abandon their claims…

this is not a case in which a wealthy Claimant is deliberately pursuing a low-value claim, at great expense, in order to harass the Defendant, or to cause as much unnecessary cost to the Defendant as possible. Rather, this is a case in which extremely poor Claimants are pursuing a relatively low-value claim for a number of legitimate reasons, only one of which is the prospect of damages.

This is an important finding, both under A4 Brussels Ia and beyond it, under residual English conflicts rules.

Geert.

European Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Chapter 7.

Josiya ea v BAT ea (tobacco labourers’ exploitation). On documentary proof of link between claimant and defendant.

Josiya & Ors v British American Tobacco Plc & Ors [2021] EWHC 1743 (QB) is the first shot in an important business and human rights case, accusing the defendants of being responsible for working conditions said to include the widespread use of unlawful child labour, unlawful forced labour and the systematic exposure of vulnerable and impoverished adults and children to extremely hazardous working conditions with minimal protection against industrial accidents, injuries and diseases.

I briefly want to flag the 25 June order by Spencer J for it highlights a point I often make when teaching, or sharing my practice experience on, strategic and public interest litigation: that most of these cases are won not by an eloquent speech on grand principles, delivered in Hollywood fashion. Rather, by the dogged determination of invested lawyers, with a keen eye for detail across civil procedure (including standing, statutes of limitation, service, timely filing of procedural , third party and other ways of financing, tort and other applicable law).

The order at issue dismisses an application for strike-out which was essentially based on an alleged lack of documentary proof of claimants’ link to the defendants, leading to claim said to be an abuse of process.

Brussels IA applies to the claim (claim form was filed on 18 December 2020, the particulars of claim – POC on 12 January 2021): claimants aim to avoid forum non conveniens although of course Articles 33-34 might still be raised. Locus causae is said to be Malawi law [19]. Claimants concede [23] they do not at this stage have documentary evidence that categorially links each individual Claimant to one or more of the Defendants or companies within the Defendants’ corporate groups. They tried to obtain this unsuccessfully in pre-trial disclosure.

Claimant’s counsel, Richard Hermer QC, successfully argued a distinction [41]  between what is required for a party to plead the case; and what is required for a party to prove the case at trial.

Held: the claim form without specific identification of the link between individual claimants and specific defendants is not an abuse of process under the circumstances. An application for disclosure may and must be prepared.

Geert.

European Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Chapter 7.

Begum v Maran. A hopeful Court of Appeal finding on duty of care; however open issues on its engagement with Rome II’s environmental heading.

Update 10 May 2022 The claim has been settled.

I am late in reporting  Begum v Maran (UK) Ltd [2021] EWCA Civ 326, in which the Court of Appeal rejected an application for strike-out. I reported on the High Court judgment here and I should add I am instructed for claimant in the case. Oliver Holland, the lead Leigh Day solicitor in the case, discusses its implications together with Rachel Bonner (who was led by Richard Hermer) here.

Coulson LJ held that it is at least arguable (reminder: the specific action that was being discussed was an application for strike-out) that Maran does have a duty of care. His analysis essentially leans heavily on the fact that Maran availed itself of a disposal route, the consequences of which it was much aware of. It is clear that the well-known Bangladesh route to escape health, safety and environmental standards for the dismantling of ships, is questionable under the Basel Convention on Hazardous wastes and their disposal, and that shipowners have been using privity of contract in an attempt to shield themselves from any liability for consequences which are neither unexpected nor infrequent.

Others have written on the duty of care issue and I will focus on the A7 Rome II discussion: the lex specialis for environmental damage – on which I have a paper forthcoming (but to find more time!).  At 78 ff Coulson LJ firstly links the requirement of causality (the use of the flimsy ‘arising out of’) to the non-contractual obligation claimed (here: corporate duty of care), rather than the one immediately following the damage (here: negligence, recklessness causing death). That duty of care does not, it was held, ‘arise out of’ environmental damage. [82]: ‘In essence, it is the duty to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the sale of the vessel for demolition purposes did not endanger human life or health. That duty did not arise out of environmental damage; it had nothing to do with environmental damage at all. It arose out of the complete absence of workplace safety.’ And at 86: ‘even if the court had to consider whether the death (rather than the duty) arose out of environmental damage, the result would be the same…the death arose out of the absence of safe working practices and, in particular, the absence of a safety harness.’ Support is found in scholarly sources suggesting a narrow interpretation of A7; other sources are not discussed (despite having been submitted) and I continue to be convinced such limiting interpretation is not supported by the travaux. Males J, in his mostly concurring opinion, agrees that the last thing on A7 is far from said although he, too, holds that A7 is not engaged in casu.

Lord Justice Coulson obiter considers locus delicti commissi (which would be  the alternative lex causae under A7) and at 91 succinctly holds (pro memoria: obiter) that this would not have been England. There is authority I would suggest for the opposite finding and the judge’s interpretation of Arica Victims, I submit,  leaves room for discussion: at 91 he correctly refers to the Ovre Norrland Court of Appeal having pointed to ‘key decisions’ having been made in Sweden. These to me seem present in current case, too (and here: located in England).

At 110 ff the ordre public argument under A26 Rome II, which could displace the shorter statute of limitation of the Bangladeshi lex causae, for the longer English one, is succinctly dismissed as not meeting A26’s high hurdle. This leaves a narrower (and perhaps curiously indirect) ‘undue hardship’ argument under the E&W Foreign Limitation Periods Act 1984 to be discussed as a preliminary issue at the remanded trial in the High Court.

A most relevant case, also highlighting the many unresolved issues under A7 Rome II.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, para 4.54 ff.

Suing ‘Norsk Hydro’ in The Netherlands. No engagement it seems of Article 33-34 BIa ‘forum non conveniens light’.

A quick note on the suit in The Netherlands against “Norsk Hydro” of Norway, for alleged pollution caused by aluminium production in Brasil. No court decisions or orders are available as yet hence I write simply to log the case. I have put Norsk Hydro in inverted commas for the suit really is against Norsk Hydro subsidiaries incorporated in The Netherlands, who are said to control the Brazilian entities. The jurisdictional basis therefore is A4 BIa. As far as the reporting on the case  indicates, there seems little likelihood of A33-34 BIa’s forum non conveniens light making an appearance seeing as no Brazilian proceedings are reported to be underway which could sink the Dutch proceedings like the High Court did in Municipio de Mariana. That is not to say of course that the defendants might not discover some.

Geert.

EU Private International Law., 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 7.3.1.

High Court declines jurisdiction in Municipio de Mariana. An important (first instance) #bizhumanrights marker.

Update 27 July 2021 the Court of Appeal today granted the CPR 52.30 application and has given permission to appeal.

Update 10 May 2021 the Court of Appeal have agreed to hear our application to challenge the refusal for PTA.

Update 31 03 2021 the Court of Appeal have confirmed refusal to appeal in an order which fails to engage properly with inter alia the A34 issues.

Update 1 February 2021 Turner J last week refused permission to appeal (which can now still be taken to the Court of Appeal itself).

I am instructed for claimants in the case hence my post here is a succinct report, not a review and it must not be read as anything else.

Turner J yesterday struck out (not just: stayed) the case against the companies jointly operating the facilities that led to the 2015 Brazilian dam break and consequential human and environmental loss in Município De Mariana & Ors v BHP Group Plc & Anor [2020] EWHC 2930 (TCC). I reported on the case before here.

Eyre J’s earlier Order had identified the threefold jurisdictional challenge: 1. Forum non conveniens for non-EU defendants; 2. Article 34 Brussels IA for the EU-based defendants; 3. Abuse of process, case management for both.

In his judgment Turner J makes abuse of process the core of the case, hinging his subsequent obiter analysis of forum non and of Article 34 on his views viz abuse. At the centre of his abuse analysis is his interpretation of AB v John Wyeth & Brother (No.4), also known as the benzodiazepine litigation, with the points he takes from that judgment (even after the subsequent CPR rules wre issued) summarized at 76.

At 80 ff is a discussion (see e.g. my earlier review of Donaldson DJ in Zavarco) on the use of case-management powers, including abuse, against EU-domiciled defendants post CJEU Owusu (the ‘back-door analogy per Lewison J in Skype technologies SA v Joltid Ltd [2009] EWHC 2783 (Ch) ).

At 99 ff Turner J pays a lot of attention to the impact of accepting jurisdiction on the working of the courts in England, discusses some of the practicalities including language issues, and decides at 141 in an extract which has already caught the attention of others, that ‘In particular, the claimants’ tactical decision to progress closely related damages claims in the Brazilian and English jurisdictions simultaneously is an initiative the consequences of which, if unchecked, would foist upon the English courts the largest white elephant in the history of group actions.’

At 146 ff follow the obiter considerations of the remaining grounds, Article 34 Recast, forum non conveniens and case management stay. On Article 34 viz BHP Plc, the issue of ‘relatedness’ is discussed with reference of course to Euroeco and the tension between that case and Privatbank, as I flag ia here, holding at 199 in favour of Privatbank as the leading authority (hence focus on desirability of hearing cases together rather than on practical possibility). On relatedness, Turner J does not follow the approach of either Zavarco or Jalla, both of course first instance decisions.

At 206 Turner J takes the instructions of recital 24 Brussels Ia’s ‘all circumstances of the case’ to mean including circumstances which would ordinarily be part of a forum non consideration, despite Owusu, and at 231 Jalla is distinguished (at least practically; Jalla is not authority for the judge here) and i.a. at 221 Turner J lists his reasons for allowing an Article 34 stay (again: these are obiter views). As already noted, these echo his findings on abuse of process.

The forum non conveniens analysis viz BHP Ltd at 235 ff, applying Spiliada, delivers inter alia on an inherent implication of Lord Briggs’ suggestions in Vedanta: that a commitment of defendants voluntarily to submit to the foreign alternative jurisdiction, hands them the key to unlock forum non. At 241: ‘In this case, both defendants have offered to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of Brazil. Thus the force of any suggestion that there may be a risk of irreconcilable judgements against each defendant is attenuated.’

Conclusions, at 265:

(i) I strike out the claims against both defendants as an abuse of the process of the court;

(ii) If my finding of abuse were correct but my decision to strike out were wrong, then I would stay the claims leaving open the possibility of the claimants, or some of them, seeking to lift the stay in future but without pre-determining the timing of any such application or the circumstances in which such an application would be liable to succeed;

(iii) If my finding of abuse were wrong, then I would, in any event, stay the claim against BHP Plc by the application of Article 34 of the Recast Regulation;

(iv) If my finding of abuse were wrong, then I would, in any event, stay the claims against BHP Ltd on the grounds of forum non conveniens regardless of whether the BHP reliance on Article 34 of the Recast Regulation had been successful or not;

(v) If my findings on the abuse of process point were wrong, then a free-standing decision to impose a stay on case management grounds would probably be unsustainable.

Appeal is of course being considered.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Heading 8.3.

3rd ed. forthcoming February 2021.

Ontario Court of Appeal’s confirmation to dismiss in Rana Plaza: a relevant comparative marker for duty of care in the supply chain.

Update 06 05 2021 See for comparative purposes Begum v Maran here. That case most definitely advances the duty of care under English law beyond the discussions in earlier case-law which Das v George Wetson, Loblaws et al  had the benefit of discussing. Equally notably, the UK Supreme Court had not yet held in either Vedanta or Okpabi when the Ontario CA held. In light of Begum v Maran, many of the arguments against duty of care under Bangladeshi law may have to be revisited.

Thank you Bennet Jones for flagging, just before Christmas, Das v George Weston, Loblaws et al, 2017 ONSC 4129 in which the Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed the earlier decision to dismiss a claim by a proposed class in Ontario on behalf of individuals injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 and their families.

The case evokes a wide range of comparative law issues, including of course jurisdiction (not disputed here), duty of care (much disputed), applicable law (held to be Bangladeshi law as locus delicti commissi (as it would be eg in Australia, different from the EU), but with further discussion of the laws of England (Cape in particular) and India pro inspiratio [in particular M.C. Mehta v India, advancing the English rule of Rylands v Fletcher, in which the Supreme Court of India found that social costs of conducting hazardous activities should be borne by the profit-maker and not by the community].

The Court here discusses and part distinguishes ia Vedanta, Okpabi and Unilever, as Bennet Jones note: ‘Justice Feldman distinguished the English cases in that: (i) Loblaws had little control over the factories; (ii) Loblaws was not in the same business as the factories; (iii) Loblaws did not have superior knowledge or expertise about issues of structural safety; and (iv) Loblaws did not undertake to audit Rana Plaza for structural safety.’

I imagine the last word on what ‘control’ means in global value chains may not have been said.

Geert.

 

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