The proper place to sue: holding companies, etc

Another transnational tort claim against a UK holding company on the lines of Chandler v Cape plc [2012] EWCA Civ 525; [2012] 1 WLR 3111 was dealt with today by Laing J: see AAA v Unilever Plc [2017] EWHC 371 (QB). Employees and others connected with a sub-subsidiary of Unilever in Kenya  suffered political violence at the hands of thugs after the 2007 Kenyan election. They sued not only the Kenyan company involved (essentially the Brooke Bond tea operation), but Unilever, alleging failure by it as holding company to make sure its local operation took care to protect them. Unilever sought to get rid of the action, on the basis of (a) Act of State (since the actions, or rather inactions, of the Kenyan police were in issue); (b) forum non conveniens; and (c) case management grounds. The attempt failed. On (a) it had to founder since Belhaj v Straw [2017] UKSC 3; [2017] 2 WLR 456 and nothing more needs to be said. On (b) her Ladyship was forced by Brussels I Recast, Art.4 and Owusu v Jackson [2005] QB 801 to refuse a stay, even though most of the connections were with Kenya, and indeed there were fairly clear indications that the claimants were only suing Unilever here in order to be able to sue the Kenyan subsidiary in the English rather than the Kenyan High Court. What is more significant is the decision on (c), the case management argument. Unilever relied on a throw-away line of Coulson J in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources Plc [2016] EWHC 975 (TCC) at [84] to argue that there might be a stay if there was no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever. But even though it was found that there was indeed no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever, Laing J refused to go down this road, regarding it as an unjustified attempt to sideline Owusu v Jackson in the absence of pending proceedings abroad such as would justify a stay under Brussels I Recast, Art.34. The only way Unilever could get rid of the action was by showing, in the old-fashioned way, that it was bound to fail.

This is an unfortunate result for defendants sued on dubious causes of action in England, if only because it is much more time-consuming and expensive to show that an action must fail than to argue that it is being brought in the wrong place. One suspects that this will add to the pressure on the government to include in its Brexit shopping-list a wholesale revision of the Brussels I provisions on jurisdiction. Indeed, if this were done, one attraction of companies setting up shop here would be precisely the protection against inappropriate lawsuits that the current EU law pointedly fails to give.

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