Oil giant Shell wins UK Supreme Court case on oil spill off Nigerian coast

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The UK Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that it was too late for a group of Nigerian claimants to sue two Shell subsidiaries over a 2011 offshore oil spill they say had a devastating impact on the coastal area where they live.

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The case stems from the leakage of an estimated 40,000 barrels of crude oil on December 20, 2011, during the loading of an oil tanker at Shell’s Bonga oil field, 120 km off the coast of Nigeria’s southern Niger Delta.

A group of 27,800 individuals and 457 communities living in the delta have been trying to sue Shell, saying the resulting oil slick polluted their lands and waterways, damaging farming, fishing, drinking water, mangrove forests and religious shrines.

But the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that found they had brought their case after the expiry of a six-year legal deadline for taking action.

A panel of five Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected their lawyers’ argument that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a “continuing nuisance,” a technical term for a type of civil tort. This would have meant that the six-year deadline did not apply.

“The Supreme Court rejects the claimants’ submission. There was no continuing nuisance in this case,” said justice Andrew Burrows, delivering the ruling on behalf of the panel.

“The leak was a one-off event or an isolated escape. The oil pipe was no longer leaking after six hours,” he said.

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