A U.K appellate court has given the green light to more than 200,000 claimants to pursue compensation for damages caused by a devastating dam collapse at a mine co-operated by BHP Group Inc. in Brazil.
The decision overrides an earlier ruling that denied jurisdiction to the English courts to hear the case, with Slaughter and May arguing on behalf of BHP that those impacted by the deadly disaster should pursue claims in Brazil.
Law.com International has reached out to Slaughter and May for comment.
In a 107-page unanimous ruling, judges on the Court of Appeal wrote: “Our conclusion is simply that the remedies available in Brazil are not so obviously adequate that it can be said to be pointless and wasteful to pursue proceedings in [England].”
BHP jointly owns the Samarco iron ore complex, where tailings, the waste materials left after a target mineral is extracted from ore, spilled into communities in 2015, killing more than a dozen people and causing extensive environmental damage in southeastern Brazil.
The claimants are represented by PGMBM, a London-headquartered law firm that bills itself as “making the world a better place one case at a time.”
PGMBM managing partner Tom Goodhead called the decision is a “monumental judgment.”
“This is a huge step forward in not only securing justice for our clients but also sending a wider message to large multinational businesses that they cannot run major operations in countries around the world—and then hide behind their subsidiaries when things go wrong,” Goodhead said in a statement.
In its own statement, BHP stressed that the judgment is not a decision related to the merits of the claims made in the group action. Rather, the company emphasized that the latest ruling concerns whether the group action can continue against BHP in the United Kingdom.
BHP said it will continue to defend against the U.K. group action, “which BHP believes is unnecessary because it duplicates matters already covered by the existing and ongoing work of the Renova Foundation and legal proceedings in Brazil.”
The company said remediation efforts in Brazil through the Renova Foundation have already provided approximately £1.5 billion in compensation and direct financial aid to date to over 376,000 people in relation to the dam failure.
PGMBM argues that the damages are higher.
“Torrents of polluted water and mud ran for 700 kilometers, more than the equivalent of the distance between London and Edinburgh, and into the Atlantic Ocean, taking an estimated £2.5 billion toll on the region’s biodiversity and leaving effects which are still being felt to this day,” PGMBM said.
The spill resulting from the dam collapse buried villages, made thousands homeless and destroyed farms, fish stocks and livelihoods after toxic waste containing heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, nickel and aluminum flowed through the area. The spill contaminated everything in its path, including the water supply, the firm added.
A United Nations report said the tailings runoff traveled 620 kilometers downriver, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.K. Court of Appeal agreed that those impacted by the dam collapse deserve greater compensation, writing: “The vast majority of claimants who have recovered damages have only received very modest sums in respect of moral damages for interruption to their water supply.”
BHP is an Anglo-Australian mining firm. In early 2022, the company restructured, choosing to incorporate in Australia with shares primarily traded on the Australian Stock Exchange.
BHP said it is considering whether to seek permission to appeal the judgment to the U.K. Supreme Court.