Posts Tagged piercing the veil

Modern Families. UK Supreme Court confirms CSR jurisdiction against mother and daughter in Lungowe v Vedanta and Konkola – yet with one or two important caveats.

Update 10 June 2019 for an update of Canadian case-law developments see here.

Update 30 April 2019 I cannot possibly keep up with all emerging scholarship on the issue yet this review by Penelope Bergkamp most complete and worthwhile.

Update 17 April 2019 Opinio Juris have relevant review here.

Update 16 April 2019 Nick Lees and Tim Pickworth have similar caution for overenthusiastic reaction to the UKSC judgment here.

The SC this morning held in [2019] UKSC 20 Vedanta and Konkola v Lungowe, confirming jurisdiction in England for a human rights /environmental claim against a Zambia-based defendant, Konkola Copper Mines or ‘KCM’, anchored unto an EU-based defendant, Vedanta resources, the ultimate parent company of KCM. Both High Court and Court of Appeal had upheld such jurisdiction (the links lead to my blog post on both).

Of note are:

1. First of all

Lord Briggs’ emphatic rebuke of parties (and courts, one assumes) having disproportionately engaged with the issue of jurisdiction. With reference to ia VTB Capital he underlines that jurisdictional dispute should be settled in summary judgment alone, and should not lead to a mini trial. Reference is made to the size of the bundles etc. A bit of an unfair comment perhaps given that clearly there was a need for SC intervention. At any rate, one imagines that current judgment settles a number of issues and that in future litigation therefore these at least will have to be met with less arguments; lest, as his lordship notes at 14, the Supreme Court’ will find itself in the unenviable position of beating its head against a brick wall.’

2. As noted by Coulson J at 57 in the High Court judgment, neither Vedanta nor KCM pursue an Article 34 Brussels Ia argument of lis alibi pendens with proceedings in Zambia. As I signalled in my succinct review of recent study for the EP yesterday, the A34 defence is likely to be important in future litigation.

3. Applicants’ arguments that pursuing the case against them is an abuse of EU law, were advanced and equally rejected at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal stage. They are pursued again with the SC (at the latter’s express instruction).

  • At 29 Lord Briggs agrees with the HC and the CA and decides that the point that there has been no such abuse of EU law, is acte clair – no reference to the CJEU therefore.
  • At 31 ff he discusses the limited authority (all of it discussed at the HC and the CA) on abuse of Brussels I (a), particularly abuse of the anchor defendant mechanism of (now) Article 8(1), including of course CDC and at 37 raises the interesting issue of remedy: if abuse is found, is it to be disciplined under a European remedy or rather using the common law instrument of forum non conveniens?
  • And at 39: appellants argue that in CSR cases like these, Owusu has the almost inevitable effect that, providing a minimum level of triable issue can be identified against an English incorporated parent, then litigation about environmental harm all around the world can be carried on in England, wherever the immediate cause of the damage arises from the operations of one of that group’s overseas subsidiaries. With the case against the England-based defendant going ahead at any rate, per Owusu, the risk or irreconcilable judgments should jurisdiction against the subsidiaries be vacated, simply becomes to great. Not so hands tied behind the back, appellants argue, but forum non paralysis.
  • At 40 Lord Briggs suggests an adjustment of the English forum non conveniens doctrine for cases like these: namely to instruct claimants of the need to avoid irreconcilable judgments, where the anchor defendant is prepared to submit to the jurisdiction of the domicile of the foreign defendant in a case where, as here, the foreign jurisdiction would plainly be the proper place, leaving aside the risk of irreconcilable judgments

 

4. Despite Owusu, the English courts are still within their rights to reject the case in summary judgment if there is no ‘real issue’ to be tried against the anchor defendant. Here, discussion turned at 42 ff as to whether one should merely apply Chandler v Cape [2012] EWCA Civ 525, or whether this case involves the assertion of a new category of common law negligence liability.

  • This was rejected, like it was by Sales LJ in AAA v Unilever plc [2018] EWCA Civ 1532, which I review here.
  • Lord Briggs 54 concludes that viz the common law of liability there is neither anything special nor conclusive about the parent /subsidiary relationship, and
  • at 53 flags what instantly has become a favourite among commentators on the case: ‘Even where group-wide policies do not of themselves give rise to such a duty of care to third parties, they may do so if the parent does not merely proclaim them, but takes active steps, by training, supervision and enforcement, to see that they are implemented by relevant subsidiaries. Similarly, it seems to me that the parent may incur the relevant responsibility to third parties if, in published materials, it holds itself out as exercising that degree of supervision and control of its subsidiaries, even if it does not in fact do so. In such circumstances its very omission may constitute the abdication of a responsibility which it has publicly undertaken.’

4bis This part of course inevitably may give parent companies a means to prevent such liability (do not proclaim group-wide policies, let alone train or enforce them – as Gabrielle Holly also immediately noted here). However a variety of mechanisms may prevent this becoming a cheap trick to avoid liability: such compliance programs are often required under competition law, financial law etc., too; are relevant for directors’ liability; and of course may already (such as in the French devoir de vigilance) or in future (as mooted ia by the EC and the EP) be statutorily prescribed.

At 60: in the case at issue, the SC finds that the High Court with sufficient care examined and upheld the essence of the claimants’ case against Vedanta, that it exercised a sufficiently high level of supervision and control of the activities at the Mine, with sufficient knowledge of the propensity of those activities to cause toxic escapes into surrounding watercourses, as to incur a duty of care to the claimants. At 61 Lord Briggs adds obiter that not all the material (particularly services agreements) would have persuaded him as much as they did the HC or the CA, however at 62 he emphasis again that the HC and CA’s judgment on same was not vitiated by any error of law.

5. At 66 ff then follows the final issue to be determined: forum non conveniens and the further advancement of the issue already signalled above: it troubles Lord Briggs at 75 that the trial judges did not focus upon the fact that, in this case, the anchor defendant, Vedanta, had by the time of the hearing offered to submit to the jurisdiction of the Zambian courts, so that the whole case could be tried there. (An argument which was considered by Leggatt J in VTB).

  • Evidently the A4 BruIa case would have had to continue per Owusu, yet the reason why the parallel pursuit of a claim in England against Vedanta and in Zambia against KCM would give rise to a risk of irreconcilable judgments is because the claimants have chosen to exercise that right to continue against Vedanta in England, rather than because Zambia is not an available forum for the pursuit of the claim against both defendants: claimant-inflicted forum non.
  • Why, at 75 in fine, (it may be asked) should the risk of irreconcilable judgments be a decisive factor in the identification of the proper place, when it is a factor which the claimants, having a choice, have brought upon themselves?
  • Lord Briggs’ argument here is complex and I need to cross-refer more to the various authorities cited however the conclusion seems to be that Lord Briggs rejects the argument of Leggatt J in VTB and he finds that ! provided the ex-EU forum is a suitable forum, under English private international law claimants do have to make a choice: either only sue the A4 defendant in the EU but not the ex-EU subsidiaries; or sue all in the forum where they may all be sued (if there is such a forum), here by virtue of submission to the non-EU forum. The alternative would allow claimant to profit from self-inflicted risks of irreconcilable judgments.
  • In the end the rule is of no impact in the case for Zambia was found not to be an appropriate forum, for reasons of ‘substantial justice’: among others because of the absence of Conditional Fee Agreements, and given the unavoidable scale and complexity of this case (wherever litigated), the trial judge was right that it could not be undertaken at all with the limited funding and legal resources which the evidence led him to conclude were available within Zambia.

 

6. By way of my conclusion so far: (update 11 April 2019: in the meantime echoed by Robert McCorquodale’s analysis here; and here; he was counsel for interveners in the case hence was able to refer to insight gained from having seen parties’ submissions)

The group policy direction, enforcement, compliance and communication of same -issue is an important take away from this case. Particularly as it may be expected that holding companies will not find it that straightforward simply to do away with such policies. Of great impact too will be the choice now put upon claimants in the forum non conveniens issue: suing nondom companies by virtue of anchoring unto the A4 mother company in England at least will be less straightforward (many usual suspects among the competing jurisdictions do have CFAs, allow for third party funding  etc.). Yet the two in my view dovetail: the reason for bringing in the ex-EU subsidiaries often is because the substantial case against them tends to serve the case against the mother. With a tighter common law neglicence liability the need to serve the daughter may be less urgent.

Geert.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 8.3.1.1., 8.3.2

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Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Gize Yebeyo Araya, et al. Some of the unanswered Kiobel and Jesner Bank issues now at the Canadian Supreme Court.

Plenty of goings-on in the Corporate Social Responsibility /mass torts category, as regular readers of the blog and /or my Twitter-feed will know. Thank you Jutta Brunnée for alerting us to Nevsun Resources v Gize Ybeyo et al, currently making its way through the Canadian Supreme Court. Thank you also Cory Wanless for pointing out the core of the issue: Nevsun are not contesting jurisdiction (its existence is secure; much like in the EU context) e.g. on forum non conveniens grounds. Rather, the Supreme Court is asked whether there should be a new tort of breach of international law, and whether the “act of state” doctrine prevents adjudication.

The first question undoubtedly will lead to a discussion of similar issues raised in Kiobel, where they were not discussed by the USSC, and in Jesner Bank, where the USCC refused to be the dealmaker on public international law. The second issue is likely to imply consideration of the very foreign poicy considerations which featured heavily in circuit considerations prior to Kiobel.

Geert.

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

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Bento Rodrigues (Samarco dam victims) v BHP Billiton in the English courts. A new CSR marker.

The media have been reporting on a considerable class action lawsuit, underway in the English courts, in the Corporate Social Responsibility /mass torts category.

The class action case was filed against Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton on behalf of 240,000 individuals, 24 municipal governments, 11,000 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese and about 200 members of the Krenak indigenous community. It concerns victims of the Samarco dam collapse in Mariana three years ago.

I am reporting the case simply to ensure complete overview of the CSR /jurisdiction /applicable law issues reported on the blog. For as I am co-counsel acting for the claimants, I am not in a position to comment on the case until and if legal analysis will be in the public domain.

Geert.

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

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Unilever. Court of Appeal summarily dismisses CSR jurisdiction against mother company, confirming High Court’s approach. Lex causae for proximity again left undiscussed.

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.

The Court of Appeal in [2018] EWCA Civ 1532 has confirmed the High Court’s approach in [2017] 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).

Geert.

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

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Court of Appeal confirms jurisdiction in Lungowe v Vedanta and Konkola.

Update 15 January 2019 see intervening party submission by CORE et al here. The case is being heard this week and will one assumes be relevant for other cases en route, including Samarco.

Update 16 May 2018 Vedanta have been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

I reviewed the High Court’s decision in Lungowe here. In [2017] EWCA Civ 1528 the Court of Appeal has now confirmed jurisdiction against the non-UK based defendants on largely the same, if slightly more structured and expanded arguments as the High Court.  (Per Owusu, jurisdiction against the UK-based defendant is undeniable; the non-UK defendants need to be joined on the basis of residual English conflicts law).

Ekaterina Aristova has analysis of Simon LJ’s leading judgment here – I am happy to refer. Of particular note is the much more reserved approach of the Court of Appeal on the merits issue of the claim. As I noted in my review of Okpabi v Shell at the High Court, in that case Fraser J looked in serious detail into the issue of merits: not, I believe, justified at the jurisdictional stage. Appeal against Fraser J’s finding will be heard by the Court of Appeal.

Geert.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 8.3.1.1., 8.3.2

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Unilever. Accepting CSR jurisdiction against mother companies not the High Court’s cup of tea.

Postscript 13 June 2017 for a similar scenario in the Italian courts (hearings pending) see here: Ikebiri v ENI.

After  Shell/Okpabi, the High Court has now for the second time in 2017 rejected jurisdiction to be established against the foreign subsidiary (here: in Kenya) using the mother company as an anchor. In [2017] EWHC 371 (QB) AAA et al v Unilever and Unilever Tea Kenya ltd, Unilever is the ultimate holding company and registered in the UK. Its subsidiary is a company registered in Kenya. It operates a tea plantation there. Plaintiffs were employed, or lived there, and were the victims of ethnic violence carried out by armed criminals on the Plantation after the Presidential election in Kenya in 2007. They claim that the risk of such violence was foreseeable by both defendants, that these owed a duty of care to protect them from the risks of such violence, and that they had breached that duty.

Laing J unusually first of (at 63 ff) all declines to reject the case on ‘case management’ grounds. Unlike many of her colleagues she is more inclined to see such stay as ignoring ‘through the back door’ Owusu‘s rejection of forum non conveniens.  I believe she is right. Instead the High Court threw out the case on the basis that the claims, prima facie (on deciding jurisdiction, the Court does not review the substantial merits of the case; a thin line to cross) had no merit. Three issues had to be decided:

i) By reference to what law should the claim be decided? This was agreed as being Kenyan law.

ii) Are the criteria in Caparo v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 satisfied? (A leading English law case on the test for the duty of care). The relevance of English law on this issues comes about as a result of Kenyan law following the same Caparo test: as I have noted elsewhere, it is not without discussion that lex fori should apply to this test of attributability. Laing J held that the Caparo criteria were not fulfilled. The events were not as such foreseeable (in particular: a general breakdown in law and order). Importantly, with respect to the holding company and as helpfully summarised by Herbert Smith:

  • the pleaded duty effectively required the holding to ensure that the claimants did not suffer the damage that they suffered, and not merely to take reasonable steps to ensure their safety;
  • the pleaded duty also effectively imposed liability on that holding for the criminal acts of third parties, and required it to act as a “surrogate police force to maintain law and order”; and
  • such a duty would be wider than the duty imposed on the daughter, as the actual occupier of the Plantation, under the Kenyan Occupiers’ Liability Act

At 103, Laing J discussed and dismissed plaintiff’s attempts at distinguishing Okpabi. In her view, like in Shell /Okpabi, the mother’s control is formal control exercised at a high level of abstraction, and over the content and auditing of general policies and procedures. Not  the sort of control and superior knowledge which would meet the Chandler test.

iii) Are the claims barred by limitation? This became somewhat irrelevant but the High Court ruled they were not. (This, under the common law of conflicts, was a matter of lex causae: Kenyan law, and requiring Kenyan expert input. Not English law, as the lex fori).

The case, like Okpabi, is subject to appeal however it is clear that the English courts are not willing to pick up the baton of court of prefered resort for CSR type cases against mother companies.

Geert.

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

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Lungowe v Vedanta and Konkola. One lb of Owusu and one lb of Chandler v Cape make for a powerful potion.

Here’s the recipe for [2016] EWHC 975 (TCC) Lungowe v Vedanta at the High Court.

Obtain one lb of C-291/02 Owusu: European authority: forum non conveniens has no place in the Brussels jurisdictional regime; particularly now in Article 4 of the Brussels I Recast for as Coulson J points out at 57 in his judgment in Lungowe, Articles 33-34 of the Recast Regulation do foresee consideration in the event of parallel proceedings outside of the EU.

Mix with one lb of Chandler v Cape : English authority: parent companies may in circumstances be held liable for the actions of their foreign subsidiaries; referred to with approval by the Dutch Courts in Shell.

Have Zambian claimants in a case of environmental pollution employ Article 4 to establish jurisdiction against a holding company established in England. The company is a holding company for a diverse group of base metal and mining companies, including the second defendant, Konkola.

The fact that Vedanta are domiciled in the United Kingdom is, evidently, one of the principal reasons why they have been pursued in these proceedings (see Coulson J’s acknowledgment of same at 76). This is a manifestation of forum shopping which the CJEU has certainly encouraged. Moreover, as Coulson J suggests at 77-78, claimants also wish to pursue Vedanta because they are seen as the real architects of the environmental pollution in this part of Zambia. The argument is that, since it is Vedanta who are making millions of pounds out of the mine, it is Vedanta who should be called to account. On balance, the use of Vedanta as an anchor defendant can hardly be seen as a malicious ‘device’ or an abuse of the anchor defendant mechanism.

On that issue of abuse, reference is made by the High Court to Freeport and to CDC at the CJEU. There is no suggestion of course that either are direct precedent for the anchor defendant mechanism in residual national private international law. (Which is the case here: for the Brussels Recast joinder mechanism in Article 7 most certainly does not apply to defendants domiciled outside of the EU). It is telling therefore that the Court does refer to them here. (And inevitably raises the question whether English Court will continue to do so after Brexit).

Both 20 Essex Street and RPC have further discussion. All in all an uplifting day in the English Courts for corporate social responsibility campaigners.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 8.3.1.1., 8.3.2

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