Supreme Court of United Kingdom: The instant cases filed against Shell International for compensation of damages resulting from 2011 oil spill, the Five Judge Bench comprised of Reed (President), Briggs, Kitchin, Sales and Burrows, JJ. rejected the claim that continuing presence of oil in the affected areas give rise to continuing cause of action for the tort of private nuisance.
The present case is concerned with the land and water pollution caused due to a major oil spill that occurred off the coast of Nigeria in 2011. It was estimated that 40,000 barrel of crude oil was discharged into the ocean which subsequently reached the Nigerian coastline and so far, has affected close to 28,000 people.
The leak occurred during a cargo operation in the Bonga Oil Field that is situated 120 km off the coast of Nigeria. The facility was managed by the Shell International Shipping and Trading Co. Ltd. (“STASCO”) which is the part of Shell Group of Companies and is registered in UK.
The claimants, two Nigerian citizens (Jalla and Chujor), brought the claim in the tort of private nuisance for undue interference with the use and enjoyment of land owned by them due to the oil spill. Subsequently, in 2019, they filed an application seeking amendment to the name of parties sued, from Shell International Ltd. to STASCO. The defendants objected and argued that the amendment is not permissible as the suit is barred by the limitation. Under the English Law, the limitation period for action founded on tort is 6 years. The Claimants submitted that the oil from the oil spill is still present and is not cleaned up. Therefore, there is a continuing cause of action.
The lower court rejected the claim and concluded that the oil spill was a single event which could not constitute continuing nuisance and the same was upheld by the Court of Appeal. Thereafter, the matter was taken up in Supreme Court.
The five Judge Bench of the UK Supreme Court noted in its analysis that there are no cases in the English law that can conclusively accept or reject the argument of continuing nuisance by the claimants. It was assumed for the purpose of appeal that the tort of private nuisance can be committed where the nuisance emanates from sea and by a single one-off event such as oil spill.
The Court explained that in principle and in general terms, continuing nuisance occurs when there is a repeated activity by the defendant or an ongoing state of affairs for which the defendant is responsible, which causes continuing undue interference with the claimant’s use and enjoyment of land. For continuing nuisance, the interference may be similar on each occasion, but it should be continuing on regular basis. Where the nuisance is continuing, the cause of action accrues fresh on a continuous basis.
The Court unanimously agreed with the lower court and the Court of Appeal that the oil spill was a one-off event. It held that the cause of action accrued and was completed once the claimant land had been affected by the oil spill. There was no continuing cause of action as long as the oil remained on the land. Thus, the appeal was dismissed.
[Jalla and Another v. Shell International Trading and Shipping Company Ltd,  2 WLR 1085, decided on 10-05-2023]
The judgement was authored by Lord Burrows