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The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited v. Chief G.B.A Tiebo & Ors.

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Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court

Citation: SC.9/1999 S.P.D.C. (Nig.) Ltd. v Tiegbo VII (2005) 9 NWLR (Pt.931) 439 (2005) 3-4 S.C 137
Date: 8 April 2005
Instrument(s) cited: Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 Decree No. 107 of 1993 Federal High Court Act , Cap. 134 Federal High Court (Amendment) Decree 1991 (Decree No. 60 of 1991) Statutory Instrument No. 9 of 1993

Case summary

Background: The case was brought by the chiefs of the Perembiri community in their personal capacity and on behalf of the village community following a crude oil spill resulting from facilities belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited. The company’s equipment caused the spill of approximately 600 barrels of oil, near the Perembiri village and Nun River in the Niger River Delta. The oil spill caused damage to farmland, fishing grounds, water sources and religious shrines, and disrupted the livelihood of the Perembiri community, of which a significant proportion are children. The community chiefs commenced legal proceedings for negligence against the company, seeking general and special damages for the harm caused. The claimants were awarded only general damages by the court, as well as a sum intended to cover their legal costs. The Perembiri community were dissatisfied with the amount of damages awarded and petitioned the Court of Appeal, which dismissed their action. The chiefs took their appeal to the Supreme Court.

Issue and resolution: Business and human rights. The Supreme Court considered whether the award of damages for damage to raffia palms and the loss of water for drinking and domestic use was correctly allocated. It was held that the judge in the lower court had incorrectly treated the claim for damages as one for general damages in its entirety, rather than ascertaining that the aforementioned damage represented cause for special damages. Having confirmed the breakdown of the total sum awarded into their respective allocations, the Supreme Court confirmed and upheld the remaining sum awarded in general damages. The company’s negligence was not under consideration.

Court reasoning: The evidential requirements for general damages and for special damages are different. General damages comprise such damage that is probable or likely, and that the courts will presume to result from the relevant conduct. Conversely, in order to claim special damages, a claimant must strictly prove that they did indeed suffer the special damage claimed, demonstrating both loss and causation. Evidence in support of a claim for special damages had to be “qualitative and credible” and should be quantifiable based on the facts and circumstances of the case. The lower court should have treated the claim for damage to raffia palms and loss of drinking water as claims for special damages, requiring specific evidence to be given. The Claimants were unable to prove their enment to special damages, so the lower court concluded that this unsuccessful claim for special damages should instead be awarded in the form of general damages. Consequently, the general damages relating to raffia palms and loss of water were incorrectly awarded as a substitute for special damages. The Supreme Court further clarified that it would only interfere with the amount of an award of damages if the award were “manifestly too high” or “manifestly too little”, or if the judge had relied on an incorrect principle of damages in making the award. This was not deemed to be the case in this instance as the Claimants had presented evidence of extensive damage to crops, farmland, waterways and water sources, justifying an award of general damages in that amount. The judgment clarifies that courts have greater discretion in awarding general damages but less discretion in awarding special damages. An award of general damages cannot be increased to compensate claimants for their inability to prove special damages.

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