Who is your neighbour? Corporate social responsibility and the tort of negligence.

In Das v. George Weston Limited, claims were made against a Canadian garment retailer, Loblaws, whose sub-suppliers, New Wave, had occupied premise in the Rana Plaza Building at the time of its collapse on  24 April 2013, and Bureau Veritas who had been employed to audit the corporate social responsibility code that Loblaws had inserted into its contracts with its suppliers and sub-suppliers. On April 23, 2013, cracks were discovered in three pillars of the structure of Rana Plaza. Local police evacuated the site and workers were sent home. Later that day, however, managers at New Wave ordered New Wave employees to return to work the following day. The next morning, April 24, 2013, New Wave advised workers that the building was safe and threatened to terminate their employment if they did not return to work.

That same morning, as a result of a power outage, the large back-up generators on the upper floors of Rana Plaza began to operate, causing substantial vibration. Around 9 a.m., Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,130 people and injuring 2,520 others. Those injured or killed included employees of New Wave, employees of other garment businesses operating out of Rana Plaza, and other people who happened to be in or around the building at the time of the collapse. The claimants were workers in and relatives of workers who had been killed or injured in the collapse . the action not only on behalf of employees of New Wave and their survivors, but on behalf of all persons who were in Rana Plaza at the time of the collapse and survived, the estates of all persons who died as a result of the collapse, and the family members and dependents of those who died or were injured. Claims were brought in 2015 shortly before the second anniversary of the collapse.

In 2017 Perell J dismissed the action 2017 ONSC 4129. The claims for death and personal injury were a time barred, save for claimants born after 22 April 1996, under the law of Bangladesh which was the governing law, as the lex loci delecti. There was no plausible case for liability in tort on either party under either the law of Bangladesh (effectively English tort law) and that of Ontario.

Shortly before Christmas 2018 the Court of Appeals in Ontario upheld the decision,  2018 ONCA 1053 (CanLII).

With respect to Loblaws’ liability, the Court found that it was plain and obvious that a negligence claim against Loblaws would fail under Bangladeshi law. The facts did not amount to the type of relationship or control over New Wave’s operations by Loblaws that has been found in English law to be sufficient to establish proximity or assumption of responsibility, and to thereby impose a duty of care to protect against harm by third parties. Loblaws was not directly involved in the management of New Wave, nor in the process of manufacturing the products. Loblaws did not have control over where the manufacturing operation took place. Loblaws’ only means of controlling New Wave was through cancellation of its product orders from Pearl Global for non-compliance with the CSR Standards. Nor was there any pleaded history of Loblaws using that lever to enforce any change in New Wave’s operations. The social audits required by Loblaws the limited social audits did not and were not intended to cover any structural issues in the New Wave factories and there was therefore no basis for any reliance on Loblaws or Bureau Veritas with respect to the structure of the Rana Plaza premises.

Similarly, the Court held that the judge correctly held that it was plain and obvious that the appellants’ pleaded claim in negligence against Bureau Veritas would fail under Bangladeshi law.

The vicarious liability claim also failed. It had not been pleaded that New Wave was acting as agent for, or on behalf of, Loblaws in conducting its operations. The exceptional circumstances in which an enterprise can be vicariously liable for the misdeeds of independent contractors were not present here. Loblaws was a retailer not a garment manufacturer and was not an enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry. It had no control over how its supplier and the sub-supplier carried on their manufacturing business or treated their employees.

Two other interesting cases on corporate liability for the acts of third parties were heard last month before the Supreme Court in Canada and the UK.

The former is the appeal in Araya v Nevsun Resources Ltd, 2017 BCCA 401, a claim against a Canadian company in respect of alleged slavery at a mine in Eritrea operated by the Eritrean government under a joint venture with it. The two issues under appeal were (a) whether the claim was barred by the Act of State doctrine and (b) whether there was a cause of action against the company for participating in a violation of customary international law.

The latter is the Vedanta Resources Plc v Lungowe noted here https://iistl.blog/2018/07/10/no-direct-liability-in-tort-for-uk-parent-company-third-anchor-defendant-decision-in-the-court-of-appeal/

This involved claims against the UK parent company and its Zambian subsidiary for environmental damage and personal injury in respect of the operation of a copper mine in Zambia. There were five issues: (i)  The proper approach to the “real issue”/”proper party” test under Practice Direction 6B para. 3.1, where a claimant seeks to sue a foreign subsidiary and a UK-domiciled parent company.

(ii) The proper approach to the exercise of discretion under CPR r.6.37(3) in mass tort claims, particularly the weight to be given to the prospect of parallel foreign proceedings as against the prejudice caused to a foreign defendant in defending mass tort claims in England and Wales.

(iii) The proper approach when determining whether there is a real risk that a claimant cannot obtain substantial justice in a foreign jurisdiction.

(iv)  The proper application of EU law principles and cases to claims brought against an English domiciled parent company, where the non-EU claimant sues both an EU-domiciled parent company and its non-EU subsidiary company.

(v) Whether to refer point (4) above to the EU Court of Justice.

 

 

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