A Dutch court rejected a bid by Nigerian farmers to hold Shell responsible for oil damage to their villages, in a case that environmental groups had hoped would set a precedent for global corporate responsibility.
Instead, The Hague district court ruled that Anglo-Dutch Shell's parent company could not be held responsible for the pollution, as only subsidiary Shell Nigeria was responsible for one oil leak.
The court "dismissed all claims against the parent companies … since, pursuant to Nigerian law, a parent company in principle is not obliged to prevent its subsidiaries from harming third parties abroad", Judge Henk Wien said.
The four farmers and fishermen, backed by lobby group Friends of the Earth, first filed the case in 2008 against the Netherlands-headquartered oil giant in a court thousands of kilometres from their homes.
Environmental groups had hoped the case would open the floodgates for hundreds of similar claims around the world.
Wien said, however, that Shell's Nigerian subsidiary must pay damages to the farmers and fishermen in one of their claims, relating to oil spills near the Niger Delta village of Ikot Ada Udo.
"Shell Nigeria has been sentenced to pay damages in one of the cases. All claims in the other four proceedings have been dismissed," Wien said.
It was the first time a Dutch company was sued in the Netherlands over damage in another country, in this case oil pollution.
Former Friends of the Earth International head Nnimmo Bassey said by phone from Abuja that the case had nevertheless set a precedent: "I can see many cases coming up."
"I think the fact that we succeeded in at least one of the cases is a major milestone because now Shell and other transnational corporations can be sure that they cannot pollute the environment anywhere in the world and run back and enjoy their profits back home," he said. Shell welcomed the decision clearing the parent firm of responsibility.