Posts Tagged piercing the veil

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

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.

 

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 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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