When is a bill of lading not a bill of lading?

If something looks like a duck, but doesn’t swim like a duck or quack like a duck, then there’s a fair chance it may not actually be a duck. A salutary decision last Friday from Singapore made just this point about bills of lading. You can’t simply assume that a piece of paper headed “Bill of Lading” and embodying the kind of wording you’re used to seeing in a bill of lading is anything of the sort if the circumstances show that the parties had no intention to treat it as one.

The Luna [2021] SGCA 84 arose out of the OW Bunkers debacle, the gift that goes on giving to commercial lawyers with school fees to pay. In brief, Phillips was in the the business of acquiring and blending fuel oil in Singapore, and then supplying it to bunkering companies that would ship it out in barges to ocean-going vessels in need of a stem. One of those companies was the Singapore branch of OW. Phillips sold barge-loads of bunkers to OW on fob terms, with ownership passing to OW when the oil went on board the barge, payment due in 30 days and – significantly – not so much as a smell of any retention of title in Phillips.

When OW collapsed in 2014 owing Phillips big money, Phillips, having given credit to the uncreditworthy, looked around for someone else to sue. Their gaze lighted on the barge-owner carriers. For each barge-load, the latter had issued a soi-disant bill of lading to Phillips’s order with the discharge port designated rather charmingly as “Bunkers for ocean going vessels or so near as the vessel can safely get, always afloat”. The modus operandi, however, had been somewhat at odds with everyday bill of lading practice. The bunkers had in normal cases been physically stemmed within a day or so; OW (while solvent) had paid Phillips after 30 days against a certificate of quantity and a commercial invoice; and the bill of lading had remained at all times with Phillips, and no question had ever arisen of any need to present it to the carriers to get hold of the goods it supposedly covered.

On OW’s insolvency Phillips totted up the bunkers sold by it to OW and not paid for, took the relevant bills of lading out of its safe, and on the basis of those documents formally demanded delivery of the oil from the issuing carriers. When this was not forthcoming (as Phillips knew perfectly well it would not be) Phillips sued the carriers for breach of contract, conversion and reversionary injury, and arrested the barges concerned.

Reversing the judge, the Singapore Court of Appeal dismissed the claim. The issue was whether these apparent bills of lading had been intended to take effect as such, or for that matter to have any contractual force at all. Whatever the position as regards the matters that could be regarded when it came to interpretation of a contract, on this wider issue all the underlying facts were in account. Here the practice of all parties concerned, including the acceptance that at no time had there been any question of the carriers demanding production of the bills before delivering a stem to a vessel, indicated a negative answer.

Having decided that there could be no claim under the terms of the so-called bills of lading, the court then went on to say – citing the writings of a certain IISTL member – there could equally be no claim for conversion or reversionary injury.

This must be correct. Further, given the tendency of businesses to issue documents without being entirely sure of their nature or import, the result in this case needs noting carefully by commercial lawyers throughout the common law world.

A note of caution may also be in order, however, as regards carriers. You must still be careful what documents you do issue. True, the carrier in The Luna escaped liability because all parties accepted that the so-called bill of lading didn’t mean what it seemed to say (indeed, it doesn’t seem to have meant very much at all). But imagine that a bill of lading issued in these circumstances which ends up in the hands of a bank or other financier who is not aware of the circumstances and who in all innocence lends against it. The betting there must be that, as against the financier, the carrier issuing it would take the risk of being taken at its word. And this could be a very expensive risk, particularly since the chances of it being covered by any normal P&I club are pretty remote. Carriers, you have been warned.

Reflective loss — some unfinished business

Life in lugubrious legal lockdown was briefly relieved when last year the Supreme Court in Sevilleja v Marex Financial Ltd [2021] A.C. 39 pruned back the luxuriant growth of the reflective loss rule. To remind you, the reflective loss rule is the principle that you cannot sue X for damages in so far as (i) you are a shareholder in Y Ltd; (ii) Y Ltd could itself have sued X; and (iii) the loss you seek to have made good simply reflects the depreciation in your shareholding due to the damage wrongfully caused by X to Y. Marex had the effect of limiting this restrictive rule rule to claims by shareholders, and scotching the heresy that it extended more generally to any case where X was guilty of a wrong against Y which incidentally cased loss to some third party Z (the claimant in that case being not a shareholder but a mere creditor).

By common consent, Marex left a fair number of loose ends to be tidied up later. In a Cayman appeal today, Primeo Fund v Bank of Bermuda & Ors [2021] UKPC 22, the Privy Council neatly knotted one such, namely that of timing. Granted that a shareholder in Y Ltd cannot sue X for loss reflecting the diminution in his holding in Y Ltd, what is the relevant time: is it when the cause of action arises, or when the claimant sues?

Simplifying as far as possible, Primeo was the Cayman Islands investment arm of the Bank of Austria. In the 1990s it appointed as custodians and investment advisers a couple of companies connected with the Bank of Bermuda, R1 and R2. It was then unlucky enough to be introduced to BLMIS LLC, in effect a unit trust operated by the redoubtable Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff. Large sums of money were entrusted by Primeo to BLMIS, most of which (it was found) were immediately appropriated by Mr Madoff and his pals.

In 2007 Primeo’s investment was restructured: its interests in BLMIS were transferred to a separate corporate vehicle, Herald Fund SPC, and in exchange Primeo got shares in Herald. At the same time R1 and R2 agreed to function as custodians and investment advisers to Herald.

Just before Christmas 2008 the Madoff house of cards collapsed, and with it BLMIS. As part of the ensuing litigation, Primeo – itself by then in liquidation – sued R1 and R2 for failing in the years before 2007 to alert it to indications that Mr Madoff was an obvious crook, and thus causing it to entrust more money to him and not to withdraw what it had while the going was good. One defence was reflective loss. R1 and R2 argued that, in so far as Herald could have sued them for loss caused to it (on the basis that they had negligently allowed it to take over assets from Primeo which it was now clear had been of very doubtful value all along), and that because as a result of events in 2007 Primeo’s loss now fell to be reckoned by the diminution of the value of its holding in Herald, the case fell squarely within the reflective loss rule.

The Cayman courts agreed, but the Privy Council was having none of it. It rightly pointed out that since Marex it had been clear that reflective loss was a rule of substantive law, rather than one of damages or title to sue. If so, it followed that the relevant time for seeing whether it applied was the time of the wrong for which compensation was sought. In Primeo, at that time there could have been no question of reflective loss: it was simply a case of allegedly bad advice leading to direct investment in a fraudulent scheme. It was at that moment that Primeo’s rights had crystallised, and nothing that happened later could take them away. It followed that the case was outside the reflective loss principle entirely.

In deciding as it did, the Privy Council had to deal with one awkward decision of the Court of Appeal, Nectrus Ltd v UCP Plc [2021] EWCA Civ 57. In that case, essentially a mirror image of Primeo, a claimant had as a result of allegedly negligent advice invested in securities through a wholly-owned subsidiary. Since the subsidiary could also have sued the adviser, the claim was fairly and squarely within the principle. However, by the time the action was brought the claimant had divested itself of the subsidiary and its holding; and the Court of Appeal had held that this removed the reflective loss bar. However, the Privy Council rightly held that such reasoning could not stand scrutiny, and that Nectrus had been wrongly decided on the point.

It may be that this open discountenancing of Nectrus as wrongly decided will be taken as an express statement that English courts should no longer follow Nectrus, something which since 2016 has been possible in the Privy Council: see Lord Neuberger in Willers v Joyce (No 2) [2018] A.C. 843 at [21]. This blog certainly hopes so. It would be very unfortunate were a judge at first instance to feel constrained to follow Nectrus on the basis that this bound him, whereas a mere decision of the Privy Council (which is not technically an English court) did not. But only time, and the inclination of litigants to put their money where their mouth is, will tell.

“Ever Given” on its way at last.

On Wednesday 7 July the Ever Given was finally released following a ceremony at Ismailia with the signing a settlement of the Suez Canal Authority’s claims for the salvage operation, costs of stalled canal traffic, and lost transit fees for the week the Ever Given had blocked the canal. Local reports suggest that the shipowners will also present the authority with a tug boat.

The amount of the settlement is undisclosed but is thought to be rather less than the $900m initially claimed, which included $300,00 for ‘loss of reputation’. It is possible that the ship may still face tort claims from cargo carried on ships delayed by the incident, particularly if perishable cargo sustained damage due to the delay.

The British horticultural sector will be particularly delighted to receive a much delayed consignment of garden gnomes carried on the vessel.

US Companies win aiding and abetting ATS case in US Supreme Court; but ATS not dead yet.

Nestle Inc v Doe & Others. Certiorari to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 17 June 2021. Slip opinion.

Six individuals from Mali claimed that they were trafficked into Ivory Coast as child slaves to produce cocoa. They sued Nestlé USA and Cargill, U.S.-based companies that purchase, process, and sell cocoa. The companies did not own or operate farms in Ivory Coast, but did buy cocoa from farms located there as well as provided those farms with technical and financial resources—such as training, fertilizer, tools, and cash—in exchange for the exclusive right to purchase cocoa. The plaintiffs alleged that this constituted a violation of the law of nations under the Alien Tort Statute, in that the companies had thereby aided and abetted slavery in that they “knew or should have known” that the farms were exploiting enslaved children yet continued to provide those farms with resources and also had economic leverage over the farms but failed to exercise it to eliminate child slavery. Although the resource distribution and the alleged slavery occurred outside the United States, it was argued that suit under the ATS was possible because the companies allegedly made all major operational decisions from within the United States.

Justice Thomas gave the majority opinion in Part I & II of his judgment. Even if all these disputes were resolved in respondents’ favour, their complaint would impermissibly seek extraterritorial application of the ATS. Nearly all the conduct that they say aided and abetted forced labor—providing training, fertilizer, tools, and cash to overseas farms—occurred in Ivory Coast. Although the Ninth Circuit let the suit proceed because respondents pleaded as a general matter that “every major operational decision by both companies is made in or approved in the U. S.” allegations of general corporate activity—like decision making—cannot alone establish domestic application of the ATS.

Justice Thomas also gave an alternative reason for his judgment in Part III by finding federal courts should not recognize private rights of action for violations of international law beyond the three historical torts identified in Sosa. He was joined by Justices Gosruch and Kavanaugh.

 Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan agreed with Justice Thomas in Parts I & II of his judgment but not as regards Part III.

Justice Alito agreed with Part I of Justice Soyomayor’s judgment that if a particular claim may be brought under the ATS against a natural person who is a United States citizen, a similar claim may be brought against a domestic corporation. dissented because the complaint sought extraterritorial application of the ATS, a question tied to the question whether the plaintiffs should be allowed to amend their complaint so as to reach the question of extraterritoriality. Justice Alito would vacate the judgment below, and remand these cases for further proceedings in the District Court.

Hit the targets. Climate change litigation in Belgium and Germany.

On 17 June 2021, the Brussels French-Speaking Court of First Instance (the “Court”) released a  ruling that the four Belgian governments were in breach of Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code and Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) by failing to take all necessary measures to prevent the impacts of climate change on the Belgian population. However, as opposed to Dutch courts in Urgenda, the Court refused to order an injunction to meet stricter targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to the principle of separation of powers. The case was brought on behalf of 58,000 Belgian citizens and by an NGO,Climate Change. The Court was asked to recognise the failure of the governments to decrease by 2020 the global volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions originating on Belgian territory by 40% (or at least 25%) compared to the 1990 level. They also sought an injunction to compel have the Belgian governments to make further reduce greenhouse gas emissions originating on the Belgian territory: by 48% (at least 42%) compared to 1990 by 2025; a reduction by 65% (at least 55%) compared to 1990 by 2030 and zero net emissions reached in 2050.

The Court acknowledged the standing of the 58,000 Belgian Citizens in holding governments liable under Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code due to the real threat of dangerous climate change, which poses a serious risk to current and future generations living in Belgium and elsewhere that their daily lives will be profoundly affected. The NGO also had  standing due to case the case law of the Belgian Supreme Court according to which an environmental protection association has the personal and direct interest required by Article 17 of the Belgian Judicial Code to bring a claim for compensation on the basis of Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code, if it believes that damage has been caused to the environment whose defence it has set itself as its statutory object.

The Court found that the federal government and the governments of the three Belgian regions failed to comply with their duty to exercise due caution and diligence in pursuing their climate policy. The Court noted that in 2019 the overall volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions from the Belgian territory had not decreased by 20% compared to the 1990 level. Therefore, Belgium does not comply with the objective set by the 2012 Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. Nor had it complied with the EU 15% reduction target for 2020 as targets in EC Decision 406/2009  because Belgium, as of October 2020, had only achieved a reduction of 11% compared to 2005. Looking to the future, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 35% compared to 2005 levels imposed by the EU Regulation 2018/842 on binding annual greenhouse gas emission reductions by Member States from 2021 to 2030 would not be met. Further experts were of the view that the federal government’s target of reducing the emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels would also not be met.

As regards the ECHR Articles 2 and 8 imposed on public authorities a positive obligation to take necessary measures to repair and prevent harmful consequences of global warning which threatens their life and private and family life – which, at this time, the four governments do not. However, the Court could not infer from Articles 6 and 24 of the UNCRC any positive obligation on the part of the signatory states, as the text leaves the authorities full latitude to meet the objectives they set out.

So far so good for the applicants, but the Court did not grant the requested injunction. Belgium was not required under European or international law to meet the targets referred to by the Applicants, and the only binding target is the one established by the EU Regulation 2018/842 which imposes a reduction of 35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Second, the jurisdiction of the Court was limited to the finding of a deficiency on the part of the public authorities, but did not extend to setting itself  Belgium’s targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as this would violate the principle of separation of powers. This is in contrast to the position of the Dutch Supreme Court in Urgenda.

The Belgian decision follows hot on the heels of a decision on April 30 2021 by Germany’s Constitutional Court  that that Germany’s Climate Action Law was partly unconstitutional in that it postponed the decision for emissions reduction targets post-2030 to a later date.The German legislator was ordered to regulate the continuation of the reduction targets for the post-2031 period by 31 December 2022 at the latest.

Strict product liability: information doesn’t count — official (sort of).

If you hoped that since Brexit you could forget about keeping one eye on the decisions of the CJEU, think again. Yesterday in Krone Verlag GmbH (Case 65/20) [2021] EUECJ C-65-20, that court decided an important issue of product liability under the Product Liability Directive, an EU measure that remains essentially in effect here having been enacted as Part I of the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

An Austrian redtop newspaper reader followed the advice contained in an article it ran on home doctoring, and applied a poultice of grated horseradish for several hours to a swollen ankle. She suffered a serious toxic skin reaction because such remedies ought to be applied for only a few minutes. In an unfortunate typo the paper had substituted hours for minutes.

She sued the proprietors, alleging that the newspaper was a defective product under the Directive and that they were therefore strictly liable to her for the consequences of the material contained in it. The owners argued that defective products meant only physically defective products, and did not cover informational defects. Case law in Austria being divided on the point, the Oberster Gerichtshof (ie the Austrian Supreme Court) referred the matter to Luxembourg.

The Euro-court briskly sided with the newspaper proprietors. A bright Euro-line had to be drawn between liability for defective things (strict) and for bad services (fault-based): and a thing did not become defective merely because it happened to be the medium for misleading advice or intellectual content apt to cause harm or injury.

Good news, certainly, for publishers: not only of newspapers, but (more importantly in the commercial context) of instruction books and manuals for maintenance or assembly. These people are it seems now insulated — at least as a matter of our law — from strict liability claims by workers complaining of injury due to incomplete or misleading materials contained in them; they are also safe from strict liability contribution claims by the insurers of employers and others who have been successfully sued by workers and now seek to pass on part of the liability. Equally, in the rare case where mariners rely on a misleading paper chart with untoward results, there can be no question now of liability in the cartographers for injuries resulting.

This judgment was about paper media: but presumably it applies to material on machine-readable media too. It can hardly make a difference whether information is supplied printed on paper or written on to a DVD or USB stick. So there can now be no strict liability suit for instructions supplied on a DVD, or if a DVD fitted into, say, an ECDIS display has a bug in it that causes the display to be wrong. (If material is supplied over the Net no question arises anyway, since then there is no physical medium at all).

A little more difficult is the position of software for operating machines, where there is no element of intellectual content readable by humans: the DVD, for example, that you insert into a device (such as the control unit of a drone submersible) to cause it to run or to transfer necessary operating information to it. If this is misconfigured and causes the device to malfunction and cause injury, is this a defective good? The matter is not absolutely clear. But the stress laid by the Court on the difference between goods and services suggests that here too liability under the Product Liability Directive should be denied. Bad instructions directed at a machine seem more a matter of a defective service than a defect in anything physical: physicality here is confined to the medium on which the instructions happen to be written.

In terms of strict law this decision is not in any way binding on a court in the UK applying the Consumer Protection Act. In practice, however, Brexit or no Brexit, it’s difficult to see the courts here coming to a different conclusion. Particularly since, at least to us at the IISTL, the result reached in Luxembourg seems so overwhelmingly sensible.

No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.

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.

Things don’t go well for Shell. Dutch Court of Appeal finds it liable for pipeline spills in Nigeria

The Dutch Court of Appeal has held that Shell Nigeria is liable for two pipeline spills in Oruma and Goi that took place between 2004-05. Shell had argued that the spills were caused by sabotage, so-called ‘bunkering’. Under Nigerian law, which was applied pursuant to the Rome I Regulation, the company would not be liable if the leaks were the result of sabotage. However, the court said that Shell had not been able fully to prove the causes of the spill. Although the parent company Royal Dutch Shell was not found directly responsible, the court ordered it to install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline, the source of several spills in the case – a finding of great interest in the ongoing debate about tort and multi-national companies..

Another case involving pipeline spills in Nigeria, Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell, came before the UK Supreme Court last June. A previous UK case involving spills in the Bodo area was settled in 2015.

Swiss Responsible Business Initiative. Result of Sunday’s referendum

On Sunday the Swiss voted in a referendum on a proposal for extra territorial liability for Swiss companies liable for human rights violations and environmental damage committed by their subsidiaries. The proposal gained 50.7% of popular vote but only gained 8.5 of the required 12 regional majorities across Switzerland’s cantons. A majority of both the popular vote and cantonal vote is needed for an initiative to pass and so the proposal was rejected. The Swiss Parliament will now adopt the Government’s counter-proposal which is limited to reporting and issue-specific due diligence without liability rules.