Another bad week for Shell. Supreme Court allows Okpabi appeal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, for whom Lord Hamblen gave judgment, allowed the appeal in the Okpabi Nigerian oil spill case against Shell’s UK parent, Royal Dutch Shell, Okpabi & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor [2021] UKSC 3 (12 February 2021). This comes shortly after the decision of the Dutch Court of Appeal in parallel proceedings involving oil spills in other parts of Nigeria with claims against Shell’s Dutch parent and its Nigerian subsidiary.

The Supreme Court criticised the approach of both the court at first instance and of the Court of Appeal in allowing what was in effect a mini-trial based on the voluminous evidence before the Court. This was incorrect for interlocutory proceedings. Legally, in the light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Vedanta  which was given after the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Okpabi, various errors of law were apparent in the approach of the majority of the Court of Appeal.

The case made against RDS was that it owed the claimant a common law duty of care because, as pleaded, it exercised significant control over material aspects of SPDC’s operations and/or assumed responsibility for SPDC’s operations, including by the promulgation and imposition of mandatory health, safety and environmental policies, standards and manuals which allegedly failed to protect the appellants against the risk of foreseeable harm arising from SPDC’s operations. The issue of governing law pointed to the application of Nigerian law under the Rome II Regulation and it was agreed that the laws of England and Wales and the law of Nigeria wee materially the same.  The majority of the Court of Appeal (Simon LJ and the Chancellor) held that there was no arguable case that RDS owed the appellants a common law duty of care to protect them against foreseeable harm caused by the operations of SPDC. Sales LJ delivered a dissenting judgment in which he explained why he considered there was a good arguable case that RDS did owe the appellants a duty of care.

The pleaded case and the legal argument in the courts below focused on the then understood threefold test for a duty of care set out in Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 and, in particular, whether there was sufficient proximity and whether it would be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care. This was incorrect in the light of this court’s decision in Vedanta, where Lord Briggs had stated [49] “the liability of parent companies in relation to the activities of their subsidiaries is not, of itself, a distinct category of liability in common law negligence”.

The appellants recast their case based on Vedanta with the following four routes:

(1)              RDS taking over the management or joint management of the relevant activity of SPDC;

(2)              RDS providing defective advice and/or promulgating defective group-wide safety/environmental policies which were implemented as of course by SPDC;

(3)              RDS promulgating group-wide safety/environmental policies and taking active steps to ensure their implementation by SPDC, and

(4)              RDS holding out that it exercises a particular degree of supervision and control of SPDC.

Apart from corporate material from the Shell group there was also the evidence of Professor Jordan Siegel who produced an expert report in 2008 in litigation in the United States involving RDS’s immediate predecessors as SPDC’s parent companies. He considered that these documents showed that “The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies tightly controls its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC. This control comes in the form of monitoring and approving business plans, allocating investment resources, choosing the management, and overseeing how the subsidiary responds to major public affairs issues.” He summarised various corporate documents that post-dated his 2008 report and explains that, “there has been no material change in the senior management of the Shell Group’s ability to tightly control SPDC” since that report. Hes tated that the role of the RDS ExCo is “fundamentally the same” as the predecessor Committee of Managing Directors.

Apart from the error of conducting a mini-trial, there were two other errors of law alleged by the appellants.

The first alleged error is in the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the principles of a parent company’s liability in its consideration of the factors and circumstances which may give rise to a duty of care. The second alleged error is in the court’s overall analytical framework for determining whether a duty of care exists in cases of this type and its reliance on the Caparo threefold test.

The approach of the Court of Appeal had to be considered in the light of the guidance subsequently provided by this court in Vedanta. To the extent that the Court of Appeal indicated that the promulgation by a parent company of group wide policies or standards can never in itself give rise to a duty of care, that was inconsistent with Vedanta.  At para 52 of Vedanta Lord Briggs said that he did not consider that “there is any such reliable limiting principle”. He pointed out that: “Group guidelines … may be shown to contain systemic errors which, when implemented as of course by a particular subsidiary, then cause harm to third parties.” This is what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (2).

Secondly, the majority of the Court of Appeal may be said to have focused inappropriately on the issue of control. Simon LJ appears to have regarded proof of the exercise of control by the parent company as being As Lord Briggs pointed out in Vedanta, it all depends on: “the extent to which, and the way in which, the parent availed itself of the opportunity to take over, intervene in, control, supervise or advise the management of the relevant operations … of the subsidiary.[49]” Control was just a starting point for that question. Lord Hamblen stated:

“The issue is the extent to which the parent did take over or share with the subsidiary the management of the relevant activity (here the pipeline operation). That may or may not be demonstrated by the parent controlling the subsidiary. In a sense, all parents control their subsidiaries. That control gives the parent the opportunity to get involved in management. But control of a company and de facto management of part of its activities are two different things. A subsidiary may maintain de jure control of its activities, but nonetheless delegate de facto management of part of them to emissaries of its parent.” [147]

A specific example of a case in which a duty of care may arise regardless of the exercise of control was provided by what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (4), based on what Lord Briggs stated at para 53:

“… the parent may incur the relevant responsibility to third parties if, in published materials, it holds itself out as exercising that degree of supervision and control of its subsidiaries, even if it does not in fact do so. In such circumstances its very omission may constitute the abdication of a responsibility which it has publicly undertaken.”

The Supreme Court then went on to consider whether these errors were material to the decision of the Court of Appeal.

It held that the case set out in the pleadings, fortified by the points made in reliance upon the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework, established that there was a real issue to be tried under Vedanta routes (1) and (3).  It was not necessary to make any ruling in relation to Vedanta routes (2) and (4), and the Court preferred not to do so given that the pleading has not been structured around such a case, although it observed that there was currently no pleaded identification of systemic errors in the RDS policies and standards.

Lord Hamblen concluded [154]:

“Whilst I consider that the appellants’ pleaded case and reliance on the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework is sufficient to raise a real issue to be tried, that conclusion is further supported by their witness evidence, as summarised when setting out the appellants’ case above, and, for reasons already given, the very real prospect of relevant disclosure being provided. That prospect is specifically borne out by the evidence of Professor Siegel and the identification of some of the most likely documents of relevance in the Dutch proceedings.”

Prefering, generally, the analysis of Sales LJ  to that of the majority of the Court of Appeal he noted observations of Sales LJ at para 155 that it was significant that the Shell group is organised along Business and Functional lines rather than simply according to corporate status. This vertical structure involves significant delegation

The appellants argued that the Shell group’s vertical organisational structure means that it is comparable to Lord Briggs’ example of group businesses which “are, in management terms, carried on as if they were a single commercial undertaking, with boundaries of legal personality and ownership within the group becoming irrelevant” (para 51).  How this organisational structure worked in practice and the extent to which the delegated authority of RDS, the CEO and the RDS ExCo was involved and exercised in relation to decisions made by SPDC were very much in dispute, as apparent from the witness statements. It wa also an issue in relation to which proper disclosure was of obvious importance. It clearly raised triable issues.

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