From Borstal boys to Parent Companies. Tort liability for the acts of third parties.

 

2017 saw three ‘anchor defendant’ cases before the High Court involving tort claims against a UK parent corporation in respect of the activities of its overseas subsidiary. The claimants sought leave to serve the subsidiary out of the jurisdiction under the ‘necessary and proper party’ gateway for service out of the jurisdiction in paragraph 3.1 of Practice Direction 6B in the Civil Procedure Rules (“CPR”). In two cases, AAA v Unilever and Okpabi v Shell, leave was refused but was granted in the third case, Vedanta Resources PLC and another v Lungowe. The key issue was whether there was a triable issue against the UK parent corporation. Lungowe involved alleged pollution from toxic emissions from a copper mine in Zambia owned by a Zambian company, KCM, whose ultimate parent company is Vedanta Resources Ltd which is incorporated and domiciled in the UK.

The Supreme Court, [2019] UKSC 20, in which Lord Briggs gave the lead judgment, has upheld the findings at first instance and in the Court of Appeal that there was a triable issue as regards Vedanta on the basis of a plausible case that its involvement in the activities of KCM gave rise to a duty of care to those affected by those activities.

There were four issues before the Supreme Court on which the claimants succeeded on 1,2, and 4 but not on 3.

(1) whether it is an abuse of EU law to rely on article 4 of the Recast Brussels Regulation for jurisdiction over Vedanta as anchor defendant so as to make KCM a “necessary or proper party”.

The EU case law suggests that the abuse of law doctrine is limited to situations where EU law is invoked collusively to subvert other EU provisions. In light of the decision in Owusu v Jackson (C-281/02) [2005] QB 801 (CJEU), arguments based on forum conveniens cannot justify derogating from the primary rule of jurisdiction in article 4.1 The concern about the wide effect of article 4.1 in this case is best addressed under the domestic law on the “necessary or proper party” gateway.

(2) whether the claimants’ pleaded case and supporting evidence disclose no real triable issue against Vedanta

The assertion that the negligence claim against Vedanta raises a novel and controversial legal issue was misplaced, as the liability of parent companies in relation to the activities of their subsidiaries is not, in itself, a distinct category of negligence unsuited to summary determination. The relevant principles for determining whether A owes a duty of care to C in respect of the harmful activities of B are not novel and can be traced back to the decision of the House of Lords in Dorset Yacht Co Ltd v Home Office [1970] AC 1004, the case involving Home Office responsibility for damage caused by absconding borstal boys when they boarded a yacht and collided with the plaintiff’s yacht. The duty  would arise from 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 the surrounding watercourses. This was a question for Zambian law, which it was agreed followed English tort law, but the question what that level actually was is a pure question of fact. On the facts, there was sufficient material identified by the judge in support of the view that the claimants’ case was arguable and the judge made no error of law in assessing this issue, so his decision on the negligence claim must stand.

The Judge had identified the following evidence as establishing that there was an arguable case that Vedanta owed a duty of care. There was part of the published material, namely a report entitled “Embedding Sustainability” which stressed that the oversight of all Vedanta’s subsidiaries rested with the board of Vedanta itself, and which made particular reference to problems with discharges into water and to the particular problems arising at the Mine. There was the management services agreement between Vedanta and KCM , and a witness statement of Mr Kakengela.

Lord Briggs stated[61]:

“For my part, if conducting the analysis afresh, I might have been less persuaded than were either the judge or the Court of Appeal by the management services agreement between the appellants, or by the evidence of Mr Kakengela. But I regard the published materials in which Vedanta may fairly be said to have asserted its own assumption of responsibility for the maintenance of proper standards of environmental control over the activities of its subsidiaries, and in particular the operations at the Mine, and not merely to have laid down but also implemented those Page 23 standards by training, monitoring and enforcement, as sufficient on their own to show that it is well arguable that a sufficient level of intervention by Vedanta in the conduct of operations at the Mine may be demonstrable at trial, after full disclosure of the relevant internal documents of Vedanta and KCM, and of communications passing between them.”

(3) whether England is the proper place in which to bring the claims;

The domestic law ‘proper place’ test requires a search is for a single jurisdiction in which the claims against all defendants may most suitably be tried. The courts have treated the risk of irreconcilable judgments as a decisive factor in favour of England as the proper place for the claim against the non-EU defendant as well. The judge in this case applied that approach but that was a legal error in circumstances where Vedanta had by the time of the hearing offered to submit to the Zambian jurisdiction, so that the whole case could be tried there. The risk of irreconcilable judgments would be the result of the claimants’ choice to exercise their article 4 right, rather than because Zambia is not an available forum for all the claims. The risk of irreconcilable judgments was still a relevant factor but was no longer a trump card such that the judge made an error of principle in regarding it as decisive. Looking at the relevant connecting factors in the round, Zambia would plainly have been the proper place for this litigation as a whole, provided substantial justice was available to the parties in Zambia

(4) if Zambia would otherwise be the proper place, whether there was a real risk that the claimants would not obtain access to substantial justice in the Zambian jurisdiction.

Even if the court concludes that a foreign jurisdiction is the apparently the proper place, the court may still permit service of English proceedings on the foreign defendant if cogent evidence shows that there is a real risk that substantial justice would not be obtainable in that foreign jurisdiction. In this case, the judge identified two “access to justice” issues in Zambia First, the practicable impossibility of funding such group claims where the claimants are all in extreme poverty, because they could not obtain legal aid and because conditional fee agreements (CFAs) are unlawful in Zambia. Secondly, the absence within Zambia of sufficiently substantial and suitably experienced legal teams to enable effective litigation of this size and complexity, in particular against a well-resourced opponent like KCM.

The claims will now proceed against the parent company and its Zambian subsidiary in the English High Court.

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