The worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history has triggered one of the biggest legal claims ever filed in a British court.
The Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton is being sued for about £5bn by Brazilian victims of the Samarco dam collapse in Mariana three years ago.
The class action case was filed in the Liverpool high court on Monday by the UK-based SPG Law on behalf of 240,000 individuals, 24 municipal governments, 11,000 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese and the Krenak indigenous community.
Nineteen people died after toxic waters from the failed tailings dam surged through the village of Bento Rodrigues on 5 November 2015. The sludge destroyed hundreds of homes, devastated fisheries, contaminated forests and left hundreds of thousands of dwellers along the Doce River without drinking water.
It emerged that the company had accurately predicted the risks in a worst-case assessment made six months earlier. Prosecutors charged senior executives of the dam operator Samarco Mineração with homicide and accused its parent companies – Vale and BHP Billiton – of environment damage.
A civil case has been filed in Brazilian courts, but the plaintiffs believe they have more chance to get fair and speedy compensation in Britain than in their home country, where courts can take more than a decade to reach a judgement and compensation offers are far short of the damages incurred.
Lawyers in the UK say that, in certain cases, they will seek 10 to 20 times the damages being offered to individuals in Brazil. For example, individuals who lost their water supply for two weeks have been offered £200 in Brazil whereas £2,000 to £4000 will be claimed in the UK. Fishermen who have only been offered £20,000 each to cover the losses associated with three years’ worth of catches will be seeking 20 years’ worth of future losses based on the slow pace of river recovery. Local governments will demand lost tax revenues and compensation for increased health and unemployment costs.
If jurisdiction in the UK is accepted, the lawsuit is likely to raise the international profile of the case. The first hearing would be next summer and the case could last two to five years. Representatives from the affected communities will be called to testify in Liverpool along with expert witnesses, including Brazilian lawyer Érica Gorga.
Tom Goodhead of the Anglo-American SPG Law firm said many of the plaintiffs suffered catastrophic losses yet received almost no compensation after three years in contravention of Brazilian law which says full damages should be paid and the environment be 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 tell them there is no guarantee of winning, but we will put up a proper fight on their behalf.”
The law firm will work on a no-win no-fee basis, taking a maximum of 30% of any compensation they are able to secure for the plaintiffs. This will not be levied in the case of the indigenous community. SPG Law has already spent £1.5m on the case and estimates future costs of £18m, according to Goodhead.
BHP Billiton has yet to respond to a request for a comment, but in previous statements to the Guardian, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton said they rejected the charges, that safety had been and remained a priority and that the dam complied with Brazilian legislation. The companies have said they would defend their employees and executives.
Separately from the civil action in Brazil, the three companies made a deal with the federal and state governments in March 2016 to carry out repair, restoration and reconstruction programmes. They have spent more than $1bn on a huge clean-up and relief operation, separate from civil actions launched by prosecutors.
Samarco has paid about $6.7m in fines levied separately by the state government of Minas Gerais. BHP has also announced that it is working on restoring the affected area through a charitable foundation.