(Alliance News) - A GBP5 billion claim, thought to be one of the largest in English legal history, brought by more than 200,000 claimants against mining giant BHP Group PLC over a deadly dam collapse in Brazil, has been thrown out by the High Court.
The failure of the Fundao dam, which held waste from an iron ore mine in Minas Gerais state in south-eastern Brazil, killed 19 people and sent more than 40 million cubic metres of toxic waste into the Doce River.
Its collapse in November 2015 led to one of Brazil's worst environmental disasters, contaminating drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people and obliterating entire villages, with pollution eventually found in the Atlantic Ocean more than 400 miles away.
Lawyers representing almost 202,000 Brazilians, as well as hundreds of businesses, two dozen municipal governments and 15 churches, sought to take legal action against BHP over the fatal disaster.
They claimed that BHP was liable for the collapse of the dam, which is owned and operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Brazilian iron ore miner Vale and BHP's Brazilian subsidiary.
But, following a two-week preliminary hearing in July, a High Court judge ruled that the claim was a "clear abuse of process" which should be thrown out of court.
In a judgment published on Monday, Justice Turner said that, because there were ongoing civil proceedings in Brazil over the collapse of the dam, an English judge would be left with a task "akin to trying to build a house of cards in a wind tunnel".
Justice Turner added: "The claimants' tactical decision to progress closely related damages claims in the Brazilian and English jurisdictions simultaneously is an initiative the consequences of which, if unchecked, would foist upon the English courts the largest white elephant in the history of group actions."
In a statement after the ruling, the claimants' lawyers said they were "overwhelmingly confident" Justice Turner's decision would be overturned on appeal.
Tom Goodhead, managing partner at law firm PGMBM, said: "BHP have succeeded, once again, in delaying the provision of full redress for the victims of the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.
"BHP's legal chicanery, both in England and in Brazil, has resulted in a fundamentally flawed judgment that we intend to appeal immediately."
He added: "We will continue to fight ceaselessly, for however long it takes, in any court in the world, to ensure that BHP are held accountable for their actions.
"BHP have arrogantly and disgracefully labelled this litigation as 'pointless and wasteful'.
"They have argued in court that full redress is available to the victims in Brazil when that is fundamentally not the case.
"The victims see that. The United Nations sees that. And we have every confidence that the Court of Appeal will see that."
Duarte Junior, the mayor of Mariana, near to where the Fundao dam is located, said: "For five long years we have been frustrated, trying to rebuild our lives and communities in the face of the companies who are responsible for the disaster.
"Compensation so far has been completely inadequate and every day we still live with the effects of what happened.
"This case represents the hopes and the rights of every individual in Mariana and beyond.
"BHP did not respect our rights in Brazil. This case in England should force them to acknowledge our rights now."
A BHP spokesman said the decision was "a strong endorsement of our position that these proceedings were unnecessary because they duplicated matters already covered by the existing and ongoing work of the Renova Foundation", which BHP set up with Vale in 2016 to repair and compensate for the damage caused by the collapse of the dam.
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