Court Ruling Paves Way For Brazil Dam Collapse Lawsuit to Proceed

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July 13, 2022

by Brian Eckert

Nearly seven years after a dam failure that led to the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, a London appeal court has ruled that Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Group Limited must face a $6.6 billion lawsuit on behalf of 200,000+ Brazilians.

For years, Milberg attorneys have been working to expand access to justice for victims of the 2015 Fundão tailings dam collapse near the city of Mariana in eastern Brazil. With the BHP lawsuit receiving the green light, the firm looks forward to continuing the fight in one of the largest class action lawsuits in English legal history.

Appeal Judges Overturn Lower Court Ruling Blocking BHP Suit From UK

In 2020, the United Kingdom’s High Court of Manchester blocked a lawsuit filed by Milberg partners against BHP over the Fundão dam disaster, which killed 19 people and destroyed villages as mud and mining waste from the collapsed dam poured into the Doce River and swept toward the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles away. The effects of the dam collapse were felt far and wide as more than 43 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings polluted rivers and beaches, displaced villagers, contaminated drinking water, and impacted marine life.

The owner of the dam, Samarco, is a joint venture between BHP—the world’s largest mining company—and Vale S.A., a Brazilian multinational. At the time of the dam disaster, BHP was headquartered in London, England. It has since restructured and is incorporated in Australia, but is facing a lawsuit in UK courts stemming from the collapse of the Samarco dam.

Milberg Senior Partner Marc Grossman called the appeal court ruling “monumental.”

That lawsuit is now back on after the Court of Appeal in London overturned the prior High Court judgment. The Court of Appeal previously ruled that allowing cases against BHP in the UK would be “irredeemably unmanageable” because claimants were already making claims in Brazil. However, on July 8 the Court overturned earlier rulings, saying that that it was too early in the proceedings to declare the case unmanageable.

“Here the claimants are bringing properly arguable claims against the defendants in this jurisdiction as of right. Even if the proceedings were unmanageable due to complications arising out of parallel proceedings in Brazil, or because of other procedural complexities, that would not mean that the court process was being misused,” the judges stated. “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 this country.”

BHP had argued that the case was “pointless and wasteful” because it duplicated proceedings in Brazil and reparation and compensation programs that is has already funded. BHP said it is considering a Supreme Court appeal.

Marc Grossman, a Senior Partner at Milberg, described the Court of Appeal decision as “monumental.”

“After several losses, followed by a yearlong appeal process, we finally got the dismissal overturned and are back in the fight, bringing a voice to hundreds of thousands of victims of corporate greed and dozens of cities in Brazil,” said Grossman. “I could not be any prouder or appreciative of my partners who have all worked hard to get this case back on track and Milberg’s support and perseverance in continuing to fight this battle. This is monumental.”

Milberg’s Environmental Practice: A Global Force for Justice

Reuters notes that the BHP dam collapse lawsuit is the latest to take on the issue of whether a multinational corporation can be held liable in its home country for the actions of its overseas subsidiaries. Last year, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that a group of around 50,000 Nigerian farmers and fishermen could sue oil giant Shell in English courts for oil spill damages.

In today’s globalized world, polluting companies are often not local. Corporations that operate transnationally have expanded reach—and expanded ability to cause harm. To effectively check the power of corporations that operate in many countries, law firms today must be able to serve a broad range of clients across national borders.

Milberg’s Environmental and Toxic Torts Litigation practice is a global force for environmental justice that holds corporations accountable for harming natural resources and public health. As an internationally-recognized plaintiffs’ firm, Milberg has the strength, attorneys, and resources to represent clients seeking to enforce their environmental rights against well-financed corporations—wherever they operate.