Lungowe v Vedanta and the loi relative au devoir de vigilance: Reassessing parent company liability for human rights violations - By Catherine Dunmore

Editor's Note: Catherine Dunmore is an experienced international lawyer who practised international arbitration for multinational law firms in London and Paris. She recently received her LL.M. from the University of Toronto and her main fields of interest include international criminal law and human rights. Since October 2017, she is part of the team of the Doing Business Right project at the Asser Institute.

Introduction

The Court of Appeal in London recently handed down its judgment in Dominic Liswaniso Lungowe and Ors. v Vedanta Resources Plc and Konkola Copper Mines Plc [2017] EWCA Civ 1528 (Lungowe v Vedanta) addressing issues of jurisdiction and parent company liability. The judgment runs contrary to the historical legal doctrine that English domiciled parent companies are protected from liability for their foreign subsidiaries’ actions. This decision clarifies the duty of care standard a parent company owes when operating via a subsidiary and opens the gates to other English domiciled companies and their subsidiaries being held accountable for any human rights abuses.

Facts

In 2015, a claim was brought by 1,826 villagers from the Chingola region of Zambia against the London Stock Exchange listed metals and mining company Vedanta Resources Plc (Vedanta), which has a global asset base of almost US$40 billion. Vedanta’s subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM), a Zambian public limited company which is the largest integrated copper producer in the country, was licenced to extract from the Nchanga copper mine near Chingola. The villagers claimed personal injury, damage to property and loss of income, amenity and enjoyment of land, due to alleged pollution and environmental damage caused by discharges from the Nchanga mine for over a decade. The claimants used Vedanta to anchor their claims in the English courts and received permission to serve KCM out of the jurisdiction. Both Vedanta and KCM applied for declarations that the Court had no jurisdiction to try the claims, or alternatively, that it should not exercise such jurisdiction. These challenges were dismissed at first instance by Mr Justice Coulson, and Vedanta and KCM appealed against his order.

Judgment

The Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed the appeals and confirmed jurisdiction against Vedanta and KCM. Led by Lord Justice Simon, the Court concluded that “there are no proper grounds for re-opening the Judge's decision. The appellants have not persuaded me that the Judge misdirected himself on the law, nor that he failed to take into account what mattered or that he took into account what did not matter. How the various matters weighed with him, either individually or together, was for him to decide, provided that he did not arrive at a conclusion that was plainly wrong. In my view, he did not reach a view that was wrong; he reached a conclusion that was in accordance with the law”.

In its determination of jurisdiction, the Court notably considered the following issues:

  1. Whether the claimants' claim against KCM has a real prospect of success;

  2. If so, whether there is a real issue between the claimants and Vedanta;

  3. Whether it is reasonable for the court to try that issue;

  4. Whether KCM is a necessary and proper party to the claim against Vedanta; and

  5. Whether England is the proper place in which to bring that claim.

Of particular jurisprudential significance for future cases involving companies’ alleged human rights violations were the Court’s deliberations on issue two relating to parent companies and the duty of care.

Parent company liability and the duty of care

The Court of Appeal’s judgment sought to clarify the duty of care owed by a parent company through its subsidiary’s operations. The judges reviewed the benchmark cases for the imposition of such a duty of care and affirmed the following propositions:

  1. “The starting point is the three-part test of foreseeability, proximity and reasonableness”, as enounced in Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman. The fact alone that Vedanta is KCM’s holding company would not make it arguable that Vedanta owed a duty of care, and additional circumstances were required to ground a properly arguable claim.

  2. “A duty may be owed by a parent company to the employee of a subsidiary, or a party directly affected by the operations of that subsidiary, in certain circumstances”.

  3. “Those circumstances may arise where the parent company (a) has taken direct responsibility for devising a material health and safety policy the adequacy of which is the subject of the claim, or (b) controls the operations which give rise to the claim”.

  4. Chandler v Cape Plc and Thompson v The Renwick Group Plc describe some of the circumstances in which the three-part test may, or may not, be satisfied so as to impose on a parent company responsibility for the health and safety of a subsidiary's employee”. If both parent company and subsidiary have similar knowledge and expertise and they jointly take decisions about mine safety, which the subsidiary implements, both companies may owe a duty of care to those affected by those decisions.

  5. “The evidence sufficient to establish the duty may not be available at the early stages of the case”, and may be better judged after the pleadings in the case.

In its deliberations, the Court of Appeal considered certain factors as relevant to the existence of a duty of care between Vedanta and the villagers, namely:

  • A Vedanta report which stressed that oversight of all its subsidiaries rests with the Board of Vedanta itself and expressly refers to problems with discharges into water at the mine in Zambia.

  • A Management and Shareholders Agreement which contractually obliged Vedanta to provide KCM with, among others, geographical and mining services and employee training as well as to procure feasibility studies in accordance with “acceptable mining, metal treatment and environmental practices conducted in Southern Africa”.

  • Vedanta's provision of environmental and technical information and Health Safety and Environmental training, as well as its public statements on its commitment to addressing environmental risks and technical shortcomings in KCM's mining infrastructure.

  • Evidence from a former KCM employee about the extent of Vedanta's control of KCM’s operational affairs.

Following the above principles relating to the duty of care and in light of the evidence displayed by the claimants, it was concluded that Mr Justice Coulson was entitled to reach his conclusions. Whilst the claim against Vedanta may or may not succeed at trial, it could not be dismissed as not properly arguable. In other words, the Court accepted “that there is a serious question to be tried which should not be disposed of summarily, notwithstanding the question goes to the court's jurisdiction”.

The Court affirmed the long-established principle that a parent company does not automatically owe a duty of care to someone affected by its subsidiary’s actions. Yet, as Lord Justice Simon observed, the defendant's assertion that “there had been no reported case in which a parent company had been held to owe a duty of care to a person affected by the operation of a subsidiary” does not at all “render such a claim unarguable”.

Rather, the claimant must prove that such a duty of care arises; more particularly that the parent company has taken direct responsibility for material health and safety policies or controls its subsidiary’s operations. It follows that the more integration and supervision that can be demonstrated between a parent company and subsidiary, the greater the chance of a duty of care being found, and accordingly the parent company being accountable for any human rights abuses. Moreover, the Court’s hesitancy to conclude at an early stage in proceedings that no duty of care exists, and consequently that there is no real issue to be tried, will likely allow more cases to be determined during the hearing rather than at an interlocutory stage.

Lungowe v Vedanta’s duty of care in light of France’s new duty of vigilance law

Earlier in 2017, the French National Assembly adopted the loi relative au devoir de vigilance des sociétés mères et des entreprises donneuses d'ordre which established a new duty of care for large multinational companies operating in France. The law imposes an obligation of vigilance on companies incorporated or registered in France during two consecutive fiscal years that have either at least 5,000 employees themselves and through French subsidiaries, or have at least 10,000 employees themselves and through subsidiaries located in France or abroad.

The law requires such a parent company to establish and implement a publically available vigilance plan relating to its activities and those of its subsidiaries. The plan includes due diligence measures to identify risks and to prevent serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, health and safety and the environment, resulting from the activities of the company and its subsidiaries, as well as the relevant activities of its subcontractors and suppliers under their commercial relationship. The law lists five such due diligence measures:

  1. A risk mapping that identifies, analyses and ranks risks

  2. Procedures for regular evaluation of subsidiaries, subcontractors or suppliers with whom an established commercial relationship is maintained

  3. Adapted actions to mitigate risks or prevent serious harm

  4. An alert mechanism and the collection of reports relating to the existence or realisation of risks, drawn up in consultation with the representative trade union organisations

  5. A monitoring mechanism to follow-up on the plan’s implementation and evaluating its effectiveness.

Any company put on formal notice to comply with these vigilance obligations can face penalties if they fail to do so within three months.

    The French law is widely viewed as a major step forward, although by no means a panacea, to improving corporate respect for human rights and the environment. Although only applicable to an estimated 100-150 large companies, in passing the law the French National Assembly acknowledged the need for corporations to be held accountable for their worldwide activities, rather than hiding behind the corporate veil. The new French law requirements are markedly different from those found in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 of the United Kingdom and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, which only require companies to report on any efforts to identify certain forms of human rights related risk. In comparison, companies caught by the French law are actually required to implement a vigilance plan.

However, under the French law the legal emphasis is on a company evidencing it has done everything in its power to establish and implement this vigilance plan, rather than focusing on guaranteeing results in terms of human rights compliance. French corporations can therefore effectively reduce their duty of care liability by creating and executing a plan with accompanying due diligence measures. In contrast, following the jurisprudence of Lungowe v Vedanta, a parent company’s liability may actually increase if it takes responsibility for such material health and safety policies. Accordingly, in order to reduce its liability and the imposition of a duty of care, a parent company might seek to demonstrate a very low level of integration and supervision between itself and its subsidiaries.

This leads to the unsatisfactory position that parent companies in both nations might be able to avoid liability for the actual damage arising from their subsidiaries’ human rights violations. A parent company in France might avoid accountability for its subsidiary’s actions through demonstrating vigilant control and surveillance, whilst a parent company in England might similarly benefit from demonstrating distance and separation. In either case, there remains a legal lacuna whereby parent companies may evade responsibility for grave rights breaches.

Conclusions

Whilst the English courts retain a significant discretion when exercising their judgement in jurisdictional challenges, the judgment in Lungowe v Vedanta may lead to an increase in claims before the courts for alleged human rights abuses by foreign subsidiaries of English domiciled parent companies. The decision might prompt vulnerable English corporations to reassess their compliance with the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and to demonstrate both their own and their subsidiaries’ respect for and adherence to human rights standards throughout their training, policies and operations. Yet, the significant converse risk is run that parent companies will distance themselves from their subsidiaries’ actions. Ensuring that the responsibility for compliance with human rights obligations remains with a subsidiary may reduce the likelihood of a duty of care being found at a parent company level for any extraterritorial human rights abuses. Ultimately, only time will tell whether Lungowe v Vedanta prompts English domiciled companies to account for, or instead avoid, their subsidiaries’ human rights abuses.

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