Trafigura offers deal to 31,000 Africans over dumped waste

A British oil trader has offered to settle a court case brought by 31,000 Africans who say that they were injured by the dumping of waste — the largest personal injuries class action mounted in an English court.

The company, Trafigura, confirmed yesterday that “a global settlement is being considered by the parties”.

A settlement, which would be without any admission of liability on the part of the company, would avoid a lengthy, costly and highly embarrassing court action that was due to begin at the High Court in London next month.

The claimants’ lawyer, Martyn Day, of Leigh Day & Co, confirmed that the two sides were in talks. “We have reached a point where we are now in the process of putting a global deal to the claimants,” he said, adding that the sum being discussed was based on the range of short-term symptoms claimed by his clients.

The action resulted from the dumping of 400 tonnes of waste in the Ivory Coast by an oil tanker, the Probo Koala, in 2006 — one of the worst pollution disasters in recent history.

Trafigura used an independent contractor, which dumped the black sludge, or slops, in rubbish tips, drains, abattoirs and lagoons in and around the capital Abidjan. The waste, a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda, was alleged by the claimants to have given off toxic fumes. They allege they suffered a variety of illnesses and their lawyers had sought damages totalling £100million.

Trafigura denied liability throughout and also disputed that the waste dumped by the local company it hired could have caused the symptoms alleged.

In a joint statement issued with Leigh Day yesterday the company said that both sides since August 2006 had “expended considerable time and money investigating the events in Abidjan in 2006 and over 20 independent experts have been appointed”.

The statement adds: “In view of that expert evidence, and the fact that claims are not being made in this litigation for deaths, miscarriages, still births, birth defects and other serious injuries, the parties are exploring the possibility of compromising the claims which have been made.”

The company offered last October to compensate any claimants who could demonstrate injury caused by exposure to the waste slops, but without admitting any liability. It has insisted throughout that it sought to comply with all relevant regulations and procedures concerning the offloading of the slops by the Probo Koala and that it could not “have foreseen the reprehensible and illegal way” the contractor then dumped the slops.

Media coverage of the waste dumping and pending litigation has been dogged by threatened or actual litigation against media organisations. A new report from the UN human rights special rapporteur has criticised Trafigura for potentially “stifling independent reporting and public criticism”.

The rapporteur, Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, viewed “with great concern reports that the company has filed or threatened to file lawsuits against various civil society and media institutions that have reported ... in a critical manner.” He says: “According to official estimates, there were 15 deaths, 69 persons hospitalised and more than 108,000 medical consultations ... there seems to be a strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping.”

Trafigura issued a damning response yesterday, labelling the report premature, inaccurate, potentially damaging and poorly researched.

Trafigura, which claims to the world’s biggest oil trader, also “utterly rejected” claims that it had tried to suppress reports, adding: “Every statement that has been made ... has been made in good faith.” It also repeated its denial that the slops could have caused death or serious injury, or that they were highly toxic.

(Published by Times Online - September 17, 2009)

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