The UK Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that it was too late for Nigerian claimants to sue two Shell subsidiaries over a 2011 offshore oil spill they say had a devastating long-term impact on the coastal area where they live.
The case was one of a series of legal battles Shell has been fighting in London courts against residents of Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta, a region blighted by pollution, conflict and corruption related to the oil and gas industry.
The action stemmed from the leakage of an estimated 40,000 barrels of crude oil on December 20, 2011, during the loading of an oil tanker at Shell’s giant Bonga oil field, 120 km off the coast of the delta.
A group of 27,800 individuals and 457 communities have been trying to sue Shell, saying the resulting oil slick polluted their lands and waterways, damaging farming, fishing, drinking water, mangrove forests and religious shrines.
But the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that found they had brought their case after the expiry of a six-year legal deadline for taking action.
A panel of five Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected their lawyers’ argument that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a “continuing nuisance”, a technical term for a type of civil tort.
This would have meant that the six-year deadline did not apply.
“The Supreme Court rejects the claimants’ submission. There was no continuing nuisance in this case,” said justice Andrew Burrows, delivering the ruling on behalf of the panel.
Shell disputed the claimants’ allegations, saying the Bonga spill was dispersed offshore and did not impact the shoreline. The court did not look at the evidence supporting either side’s assertions or make a ruling on the issue, as it was only seeking to decide the legal point about nuisance.
Only two Nigerian citizens were appellants in the Supreme Court case, but the ruling will also apply to the thousands of others who were involved in the case in the lower courts.
The court has previously ruled against Shell in another case involving pollution in the Niger Delta.
In February 2021, it allowed a group of 42,500 farmers and fishermen from the Ogale and Bille communities to sue Shell over spills, and that case is currently going through the High Court.
In a separate case, Shell agreed in 2015 after a protracted legal battle in London to pay out 55 million pounds ($70 million) to the delta’s Bodo community in compensation for two spills.