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16 March 2021
This article discusses the significant Supreme Court decision in Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell Plc(1) which considered parent company liability. This decision on jurisdiction provides helpful guidance on the circumstances in which a UK-domiciled parent company may owe a common law duty of care in respect of the actions of a foreign subsidiary.
The claimants, comprised of 42,355 individuals from the Niger Delta region, brought a claim in negligence against Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), incorporated in England, and one of its Nigerian subsidiaries, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC).
In summary, the claimants alleged that they had suffered substantial environmental damage as a result of oil spills and pollution from pipelines operated by SPDC in Nigeria, such that natural water sources used for drinking water, fishing, agricultural, washing or recreational purposes were no longer safe to use. The claimants argued that RDS owed them a common law duty of care on the basis that it exercised a significant degree of control over material aspects of SPDC's operations and had assumed responsibility for SPDC's operations through RDS's group-wide policies (policies which were alleged to have failed to protect the claimants from the risk of foreseeable harm arising from SPDC's operations).
The claimants served the proceedings on RDS within the English jurisdiction, relying on RDS's English domicile. The claimants obtained permission ex parte to serve SPDC out of jurisdiction on the basis that it was a "necessary and proper party" for the purposes of the jurisdictional gateway set out in Paragraph 3.1(3) of Practice Direction 6B.
The defendants brought applications to challenge the English court's jurisdiction and set aside the service of the claim out of jurisdiction.
At first instance, Justice Fraser concluded that although the court had jurisdiction to try the claims against RDS on the basis that it was incorporated in the United Kingdom, it was "not reasonably arguable" that RDS owed any duty of care to the claimants as limbs two (proximity) and three (reasonableness) of the Caparo v Dickman(2) test were not made out. Therefore, Fraser held that the claimants had failed to satisfy the conditions set out in Paragraph 3.1(3) of Practice Direction 6B in respect of RDS as the anchor defendant. Therefore, the court declined jurisdiction over the claim against SPDC.
The claimants appealed and, in a majority decision, the Court of Appeal upheld the first-instance decision.
Following the Court of Appeal's decision, the Supreme Court handed down the much-anticipated judgment in Vedanta Resources PLC v Lungowe,(3) in which the court confirmed that a duty of care can exist between a parent company and those affected by the operations of its subsidiaries.
Unsurprisingly, the claimants placed significant reliance on the decision in Vedanta in their appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court was required to consider two issues in this appeal. The first was whether the Court of Appeal had erred in law. In this respect, the Supreme Court held as follows:
The Court of Appeal had also erred when it approached the issue of parent company liability in negligence as a special category of liability. Citing Vedanta once more, the Supreme Court noted that normal principles of negligence apply when determining questions of parent liability for the actions of a subsidiary.
On the basis of its findings in relation to the first issue, the second issue for the Supreme Court to determine was whether the Court of Appeal had been wrong to decide that there was no real issue to be tried. The Supreme Court disagreed again with the Court of Appeal and held that there was a real issue to be tried, and that it was reasonably arguable that RDS owed the claimants a duty of care based on the case set out in the pleadings, factual witness evidence and the real prospect of relevant and significant future disclosure. Two internal RDS documents – the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework – gave weight to the claimants' case; the RDS Control Framework showed that the Shell Group was organised along "[b]usiness and Functional lines, rather than simply according to corporate status".
These two RDS internal documents showed that the Shell Group had a vertical organisational structure involving significant delegation, such that while formal decisions are taken at subsidiary corporate level, these decisions are generally taken on the basis of prior advice and consent from the vertical organisational authority. Therefore, how this organisational structure worked in practice, and the extent to which RDS was involved in relation to the operations of SPDC, raised triable issues for which proper disclosure was needed.
On this basis, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the claimants' appeal should be allowed.
This was an interlocutory decision on jurisdiction, so these issues have not yet been properly tested in the courts. However, when read alongside the Supreme Court decision in Vedanta, this decision is potentially of real importance to UK-domiciled holding companies, particularly those which may be at risk of claims alleging a duty of care in relation to the actions of their foreign subsidiaries or branches. It is unlikely to open the floodgates for claims against parent companies in the English courts at this stage, but it does provide helpful clarification on the potential liability of English-domiciled parent companies. It further highlights the importance of carefully considering the way in which parent companies exercise (or purport to exercise) control over the actions of their subsidiaries – for example, by way of reference to management structures, policies and practices. While there remains uncertainty as to the precise circumstances in which a parent company will be deemed to hold a duty of care (which will be addressed when this case and Vedanta proceed to trial), with each case being examined on its own facts, this Supreme Court judgment suggests that more cases will proceed to trial.
For further information on this topic please contact Victoria Rogers or Jonathan Cary at RPC by telephone (+44 20 3060 6000) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The RPC website can be accessed at www.rpc.co.uk.
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