The issue of a parent company’s potential direct liability in tort in respect of acts of one of its subsidiary companies has recently come before the Court of Appeal in Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd ,  EWCA Civ 191. The Nigerian claimants suffered from harm from pollution arising from oil leaks from Nigerian land pipelines due to the illegal process of “bunkering” by which oil is stolen by tapping into the pipelines.
The claimants wanted to sue Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC, who operated the pipelines, in the English courts rather than in Nigeria. To this end they sued the English holding company, Royal Dutch Shell (‘RDS’), in the English courts. RDS would now serve as an ‘anchor defendant’ and the claimants obtained leave to serve SPDC out of the jurisdiction under para 3.1 of Practice Direction 6B, on the ground that there was between the claimant and RDS a real issue which it was reasonable for the court to try and the claimant wished to serve SPDC as a necessary or proper party to that claim.
RDS applied under CPR Part 11(1) for orders declaring that the court had no jurisdiction to try the claims against it, or should not exercise such jurisdiction as it had. At first instance Fraser J found that there was no arguable duty of care owed by the parent company Royal Dutch Shell Plc to those affected by the operations of its subsidiary in Nigeria.(  EWHC 89 (TCC), noted in this blog on 2 February 2017. The governing law would be that of Nigeria, but the issue was decided under English law, because the legal experts for the parties were agreed that the law of Nigeria would follow, or at least include as an essential component, the law of England in this respect.
The Court of Appeal has now upheld the decision by a 2-1 majority, Sales LJ dissenting. The Court of Appeal applied the three stage Caparo Industries v Dickman test for assessing novel duties of care 2 AC 605 (HL) which set out three requirements, all of which had to be satisfied. (1) Was it foreseeable that if the defendant failed to take reasonable care, the plaintiff would be injured by the acts or omissions of the defendant (the foreseeability factor)? (2) Was there a relationship between the plaintiff the defendant characterized by the law as one of “proximity” or of being “neighbours” one to another (the proximity factor)? (3) as a matter of legal policy it would be fair and just to impose a duty of care on the defendant (the policy factor)? The duty of care argued for by the claimants foundered on the proximity requirement.
The claimants’ based their case on the duty of care owed by RDS to them on the fact that
“… [RDS] exerts significant control and oversights over [SPDC’s] compliance with its environmental and regulatory obligations and has assumed responsibility for ensuring observance of proper environmental standards by [SPDC] in Nigeria. [RDS] carefully monitors and directs the activities of [SPDC] and has the power and authority to intervene if [SPDC] fails to comply with the Shell Group’s global standards and/or Nigerian law.”
The claimants relied on five main factors to demonstrate RDS’s arguable control of SPDC’s operations: (1) the issue of mandatory policies, standards and manuals which applied to SPDC, (2) the imposition of mandatory design and engineering practices, (3) the imposition of a system of supervision and oversight of the implementation of RDS’s standards which bore directly on the pleaded allegations of negligence, (4) the imposition of financial control over SPDC in respect of spending which, again, directly relevant to the allegations of negligence and (5) a high level in the direction and oversight of SPDC’s operations.
Having reviewed the evidence submitted by the claimants Simon LJ concluded that none of the claimants’ five factors, either individually or cumulatively demonstrated a sufficient degree of control of SPDC’s operations in Nigeria by RDS to establish the necessary degree of proximity. There was no arguable case that RDS controlled SPDC’s operations, or that it had direct responsibility for practices or failures which were the subject of the claim. Simon LJ noted an important distinction between a parent company which controls, or shares control of, the material operations on the one hand, and a parent company which issues mandatory policies and standards which are intended to apply throughout a group of companies in order to ensure conformity with particular standards. “The issuing of mandatory policies plainly cannot mean that a parent has taken control of the operations of a subsidiary (and, necessarily, every subsidiary) such as to give rise to a duty of care in favour of any person or class of persons affected by the policies. ”.
A similar point was made by Sir Geoffrey Vos. The issue of mandatory policies, standards and manuals were of a highlevel nature and did not indicate control; control rested with SPDC which was responsible for its own operations.
“The promulgation of group standards and practices is not, in my view, enough to prove the “imposition” of mandatory design and engineering practices. There was no real evidence to show that these practices were imposed even if they were described as mandatory. There would have needed to be evidence that RDS took upon itself the enforcement of the standards, which it plainly did not. It expected SPDC to apply the standards it set. The same point applies to the suggested “imposition” of a system of supervision and oversight of the implementation of RDS’s standards which were said to bear directly on the pleaded allegations of negligence. RDS said that there should be a system of supervision and oversight, but left it to SPDC to operate that system. It did not have the wherewithal to do anything else.”
Opkabi is one of three transnational tort claims involving attempts to sue a foreign subsidiary company using the English parent company as an ‘anchor’ defendant. In Lungowe v Vedanta and AAA v Unilever the court accepted that there was an arguable case that the anchor defendant owed a duty of care, although in AAA the claim foundered on the lack of foreseeability of the harm suffered by the claimants at the hands of third parties in the post-election violence in Kenya after the 2007 elections. An appeal is due to be heard later this year.
As a sidenote, in similar proceedings brought against SPDC in the Netherlands, using RDS as an ‘anchor defendant’, the Dutch Court of Appeal in December 2015 concluded that the claims against RDS were not bound to fail. They reasoned.
“Considering the foreseeable serious consequences of oil spills to the local environment from a potential spill source, it cannot be ruled out from the outset that the parent company may be expected in such a case to take an interest in preventing spills (or in other words, that there is a duty of care in accordance with the criteria set out in Caparo v Dickman  UKHL 2,  1 All ER 56), the more so if it has made the prevention of environmental damage by the activities of group companies a spearhead and is, to a certain degree, actively involved in and managing the business operations of such companies, which is not to say that without this attention and involvement a violation of the duty of care is unthinkable and that culpable negligence with regard to the said interests can never result in liability.”
The claimants’ solicitors in Opkabi, Leigh Day, have indicated their intention to apply for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.