LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Thousands of Nigerian fishermen have rejected an offer of $50 million from Royal Dutch Shell for "some of the largest oil spills in history," their British lawyers said Friday after winning a landmark court ruling.
Shell already accepts responsibility for paying compensation and cleaning up spills caused by its own failures. But the London High Court decided that Shell can be held legally liable for spills caused by oil thefts, if it fails to provide reasonable protection for its pipeline infrastructure.
The court case involves one of Nigeria's worst environmental disasters. Amnesty International called it "a shot across the bows for Shell" and said the ruling "paves the way for Shell to finally be held accountable for devastating oil pollution in the Niger Delta."
Shell played down the judgment, saying in a statement that it was favorable in limiting litigation to "an assessment of actual damages sustained" in spills.
The oil company, Nigeria's biggest petroleum producer, claimed that the court found Nigerian law "does not hold pipeline operators responsible for damage caused by oil theft."
But Judge Robert Akenhead of the London Technological and Construction Court ruled Shell is responsible for taking reasonable steps to protect its infrastructure, including installing leak detection systems, surveillance equipment and anti-tamper equipment. Shell does not have such equipment in its Nigerian fields, though they are considered mandatory in oilfields in the developed world.
It is the first time Shell has had its environmental record in Nigeria on trial by a British court. The thousands of compensation cases in often corrupt Nigerian courts drag on for years and often end with victims being paid a pittance. Until now, Shell has paid compensation only for spills caused by equipment failure.