The British Supreme Court has ruled that polluted Nigerian communities can sue oil giant, Shell, in English courts, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on Friday.
The decision overturns a previous Appeal Court ruling and represents a victory after a five-year legal battle.
The Niger Delta communities of more than 40,000 people say decades of pollution have severely impacted their lives, health and local environment.
Shell had argued it was only a holding company for a firm that should be judged under Nigerian law.
The Supreme Court, the UK’s final appeal court for civil cases, ruled that the cases brought by the Bille community and the Ogale people of Ogoniland against Royal Dutch Shell were arguable and could proceed in the English courts.
Royal Dutch Shell did not dispute that pollution had been caused, but argued it could not be held legally responsible for its Nigerian subsidiary, and that the pollution was the result of “crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining.”
Shell is responsible for about 50 per cent of the delta’s oil production.
Last year, the UK Court of Appeal agreed with the company, but the Supreme Court said on Friday that that decision was flawed.
The communities, represented by law firm Leigh Day, argued that Shell owed a common law duty of care to individuals who had suffered serious harm as a result of systemic health, safety and environmental failings of one of its overseas subsidiaries.
This is the latest case to test whether multinational companies can be held accountable for the acts of overseas subsidiaries.