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Dutch Court: Nigerian Farmers Can Sue Shell Over Oil Spills

FILE - Friends of the Earth campaign leader Geert Ritsema, second left, and plaintiff Eric Dooh, left, wait for the start of the ruling in the court case of Nigerian farmers against Shell, in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 30, 2013.

A Dutch appeals court has ruled that a groups of Nigerian farmers can sue the international oil company Royal Dutch Shell for pollution the farmers say was from oil leaking from Shell subsidiary pipelines.

The court in The Hague handed down its ruling Friday.

The ruling was the first of its kind, meaning it could set a precedent for other Dutch-based companies being sued for the alleged negligence of their subsidiaries elsewhere.

Four Nigerian farmers, backed by the Dutch branch of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said Shell should clean up oil spills in four villages in Nigeria's oil country, the Niger Delta. They also want Shell to pay compensation to the villagers and prevent further spills.

The plaintiffs first filed their lawsuit in 2008.

A lower court in the Netherlands threw out most of the suit in 2013, saying the plaintiffs could not hold the parent company responsible for the spills. It held the subsidiary responsible in one claim, but not in the other three.

Appeals court

But the appeals court Friday ruled in favor of the Nigerians in all four cases.

It also ordered Shell to make available the internal documents the plaintiffs could use to support their case.

The presence of international oil companies in the Niger Delta has been a sore point with impoverished locals who are irritated that most of the profits generated from the natural resources in their region are not fed back into their communities.

As a result, oil company property is often targeted for sabotage -- a possible cause of the oil spills referenced in the lawsuit.