A Dutch court has delivered a major victory to a group of Nigerian farmers in their 13-year-long effort to hold Shell's Nigerian subsidiary accountable for oil spills on their lands.
The Court of Appeal in The Hague sided with farmers and environmentalists on most of their legal claims, ruling that the Nigerian subsidiary owes the farmers financial compensation for the oil spill pollution in two villages.
"The court ruled that Shell Nigeria is liable for the damage caused by the spills. Shell Nigeria is sentenced to compensate farmers for damages," Senior Justice Sierd Schaafsma said, as reported by Agence France-Presse.
The parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, and its subsidiary must also install a leak detection system to one pipeline to prevent further spills.
The court is still considering whether to hold Shell responsible for spillage in a third village, which was caused by sabotage. The spills happened between 2004 and 2007.
"Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell's oil," Eric Dooh, one of the Nigerian plaintiffs, said in a statement after the verdict. His father was also a plaintiff but died before the case wrapped up.
"Three of the four Nigerian plaintiffs and their fellow villagers must now be compensated for the damage caused and Shell must ensure that there is a leakage detection system in the pipelines in Nigeria," Friends of the Earth, the environmental organization that sued Shell, said in a statement. "It is the first time that a court has held Dutch transnational corporation accountable for its duty of care abroad."
The court has not yet set the amount of compensation the farmers will receive, and the verdict can be appealed to a higher court.
The plaintiffs said the spills were caused by the company's negligence.
Shell's Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd., maintains that spills were caused by sabotage, which could reduce its liability. But the appeals court ruled that Shell has not proved that claim "beyond reasonable doubt."
"We are therefore disappointed that this court has made a different finding on the cause of these spills and in its finding that SPDC is liable," a spokesperson for the company told NPR. "Sabotage, crude oil theft and illegal refining are a major challenge in the Niger Delta."
In a previous ruling in 2013, a lower Dutch court took a narrower view of the case. As The Associated Press reported, it said the Nigerian subsidiary should compensate just one of the farmers, and found that the Dutch company could not be held liable. In 2015, after appeals from both sides, judges ruled that Shell could be held liable for the pollution in Dutch courts.
Shell is facing another major legal challenge in The Netherlands, in a case also brought by environmentalists including Friends of the Earth Netherlands. The plaintiffs want Shell to be forced to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reported, the lawsuit "could have implications for future cases and the role of companies in meeting climate targets."