Mass torts and corporate liability for public security forces

Our analysis of the African Minerals case and its key implications for overseas corporate liability.

On 19 December 2018, the High Court handed down a judgment likely to have significant implications for English-domiciled companies with operations in the developing world which rely on public security forces to provide security for them.

The claimants, 142 Sierra Leoneans, brought proceedings against African Minerals Ltd (AML) in the English High Court, alleging that AML, owner and operator of an iron mine in the region, was liable for human rights abuses committed by its employees and members of the Sierra Leone Police in response to disputes with the local community. Although subject to the law of Sierra Leone, it was common ground that in relation to liability the law of Sierra Leone could be treated as identical to English law.

In a detailed judgment, Mr Justice Turner dismissed all the claims. Particularly interesting are the parts of the judgment which relate to AML’s alleged liability for human rights abuses committed by the local police. The judge analysed and refuted the claimants’ case that liability could attach to AML for such abuses on the grounds of non-employee vicarious liability, accessory liability, procurement liability, negligence and breach of a non-delegable duty.

He found that although AML communicated closely with the police and provided them with cash payments and transport to support them in dealing with the local disputes, it could not be said to supervise or control the police and there was no evidence that it intended for them to commit unlawful acts. As such, liability did not attach under any of the bases advanced by the claimants. Although the local police had a history of poor behaviour, the judge found that this was not sufficient to give rise to a duty on AML to prevent the police from acting unlawfully.

The judge suggested that the liability position for AML might have been different in relation to police officers specifically stationed at the mine pursuant to a contract with AML. However, he did not explore this further as these officers were not involved in the relevant incidents.

The judge noted that AML failed to follow relevant international standards in relation to its interactions with the local police but held that it did not have a duty to the claimants to do so nor would it have breached such a duty if it had existed.

3 key takeaways

  1. Generally, the English courts are reluctant to impose liability on private companies for acts committed by public security forces and will not do so unless there is strong and specific evidence of control, supervision or a shared intention that the police should act unlawfully.
  2. However, a possible exception may exist in relation to public security forces who are stationed onsite and specifically contracted by private companies to provide security for them. 
  3. Therefore, and notwithstanding the dismissal of the claims in this instance, we expect that mass tort claims will continue to be brought in relation to alleged human rights abuses overseas where the necessary fact pattern can be made out, and private companies have to strike a delicate balance in their relationships with public security forces.

Chris Owen and Alex Sussman act for Gemfields Limited in relation to mass tort claims brought in the English High Court by residents of Mozambique.