When will a parent company be liable in tort in respect of acts of one of its subsidiary companies? Fraser J has provided some answers to this question in Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd,  EWHC 89 (TCC). The case involved pollution claims arising from oil leaks from Nigerian land pipelines due to the illegal process of bunkering by which oil is stolen by tapping into the pipelines. The principal target was Shells’ Nigerian subsidiary SPDC who operated the pipelines but the claimants wanted the case to be heard in the English courts rather than in Nigeria. To do this they brought proceedings against the English holding company, Royal Dutch Shell, which would serve as an “anchor defendant” to allow claims against SPDC to be joined to those proceedings. In a jurisdictional challenge by the two defendants the issue arose as to whether there was an arguable duty of care on the part of RDS to the claimants under Nigerian law which for these purposes was the same as English common. If not, there would be no ‘anchor defendant’ and SPDC’s applications challenging jurisdiction would succeed, due to the lack of connection of the claims against SPDC with this jurisdiction.
The claimants argued that Royal Dutch Shell owed a direct duty of care to them, relying heavily on the Court of Appeal’s decision in Chandler v Cape  1 WLR 3111, in which a parent company was found to owe such a duty to employees of its subsidiary company. They alleged that RDS had failed to ensure that repeated oil leaks from SPDC’s infrastructure were expeditiously and effectively cleaned up so as to minimise the risk to the claimants’ health, land and livelihoods and, further, had failed to take appropriate measures to address the well-known systemic problems of its operations in Nigeria which led to repeated oil spills.
Fraser J applied the threefold Caparo test to finding the existence of a duty of care.
1. The damage should be foreseeable; 2. There should exist between the party owing the duty and the party to whom it is owed a relationship of proximity or neighbourhood; 3. The situation should be one in which it is “fair, just and reasonable” to impose a duty of a given scope upon the one party for the benefit of the other.
The second and third of these limbs were problematic for the claimants. The evidence from those at SPDC’s evidence was to the effect that it, rather than RDS, took all operational decisions in Nigeria, and RDS performed nothing by way of supervisory direction, specialist activities or knowledge, that would put RDS in any different position than would be expected of an ultimate parent company. It was SPDC that had the specialist knowledge and experience – as well as the necessary licence from the Nigerian authorities – to perform the relevant activities in Nigeria that formed the subject matter of the claim.
Nor could a duty of care be said to arise from public statements by made both by the Shell Group and by RDS about the Group’s commitment to environmental issues, and the organisation of the Shell Group, such statements being a function of the listing regulations of the London Stock Exchange. First these statements were qualified by the following wording “Royal Dutch Shell plc and the companies in which it directly and indirectly owns investments are separate and distinct entities. But in this publication, the collective expressions “Shell” and “Shell Group” may be used for convenience where reference is made in general to those companies. Likewise, the words ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’ and ‘ourselves’ are used in some places to refer to the companies of the Shell Group in general. These expressions are also used where no useful purpose is served by identifying any particular company or companies.” Second, it was highly unlikely that compliance with such disclosure standards mandated for listing on the London Stock Exchange could of itself be characterised as an assumption of a duty of care by a parent company over the subsidiary companies referred to in those statements.
As regards Chandler v Cape, the claimant there was a former employee, which, by definition, involved a closer relationship than parties affected by operational activities. A duty of care was more likely to be found in respect of employees, a defined class of persons, rather than others not employed who are affected by the acts or omissions of the subsidiary. None of the four factors identified by Arden LJ in Chandler as leading to a duty of care on the parent company was present here. 1. RDS was not operating the same business as SPDC. 2. RDS did not have superior or specialist knowledge compared to the subsidiary SPDC. 3. RDS could have only a superficial knowledge or overview of the systems of work of SPDC. 4. RDS could not be said to know that SPDC was relying upon it to protect the claimants.
Accordingly, there was no arguable duty of care on the part of RDS and with the disappearance of the anchor defendant the claims against SPDC could not proceed in England. The claimants’ solicitors, Leigh Day, have stated that they will appeal.