Liverpool court to hear multi-billion pound case over deadly dam burst

Barristers from Liverpool’s Exchange Chambers will take on Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton over the Fundao Dam rupture which killed 19 people and caused widespread pollution. Tony McDonough reports

Liverpool Crown Court
The multi-billion pound case will be heard in a Liverpool court


A multi-billion pound lawsuit over the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history is to be heard in Liverpool.

Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton is being sued by around 200,000 individuals, 25 municipal governments, 700 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese and members of the Krenak indigenous community in a class action brought by SPG Law.

Last week, BHP made an application to have the case moved from the Business & Property Courts in Liverpool to London. Barristers Mark Cawson QC, Louis Browne QC and Carly Sandbach of Liverpool’s Exchange Chambers, instructed by SPG, successfully resisted the application from Slaughter and May.

Toxic mudflows

On November 5, 2105, the iron ore tailings dam in Mariana in Brazil, ruptured sending around 60m cubic metres of iron waste into the Doce River. The initial flood destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues and killed 19 people and sent toxic brown mudflows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The judge refused the transfer to London thereby reinforcing the principle that “no case is too big to be heard in Liverpool”, and that London has no greater claim to host large scale international litigation than Liverpool.

In a detailed and thorough judgment, HHJ Eyre sitting in the Technology and Construction Court at Liverpool found that neither the undoubtedly substantial value of the proceedings – estimated to run into ‘billions’, nor the substantial complexity – both legally and factually – required the matter to be transferred to London.

He further confirmed the practice that an appropriate specialist judge would be made available to hear matters in Liverpool where required and that “Super Courts” in the North West could be utilised.

Suitable home

Jonathan I’Anson, Chambers director at Exchange Chambers, said: “It is a real boost for the Northern Circuit, the regional Bar and law firms based in the North West. The judge’s comments confirm that the Business and Property Courts in Liverpool are open for business.

“They are a suitable home for the most complex and valuable litigation both domestic and international in nature.”

SPG Law has instructed a specialist team from Exchange Chambers on the Fundão dam class action. Mark Cawson QC and Louis Browne QC, Alfie Weiss, Carly Sandbach and Tom Longstaff are currently working on the case.

A team of Exchange Barristers have also travelled to Brazil – Simon Whitfield, Richard Wilcock, Greg Plunkett, and Harriett Hartshorn.

The sludge from the dam rupture destroyed hundreds of homes, devastated fisheries, contaminated forests and left hundreds of thousands of dwellers along the Doce River without drinking water.

Catastrophic losses

The claimants in the action believe they have a much better chance of receiving fair and speedy compensation in Britain than in Brazil, where courts can take more than 30 years to resolve disputes and extrajudicial offers of compensation are a fraction of the damages incurred.

Tom Goodhead, lead partner on the matter at the Anglo-American Law firm, SPG, said many of the plaintiffs suffered catastrophic losses yet have received almost no compensation after three and a half years following the accident in contravention of Brazilian law which says full damages must be paid and the environment completely restored after an accident.

“Brazil’s courts are cripplingly slow,” he said. “The main purpose of filing this case in the UK is to move at greater speed and to seek a greater amount. People have been let down by the politicians and the courts. We will go toe to toe with one of the world’s largest corporations on their behalf.”

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