Skip to main content

Mass environmental litigation in Latin America

Ocensa pipeline

Victory for BP against collective claim from Colombia

In July 2016 the English High Court rejected claims by a group of Colombian farmers that the construction of an oil pipeline in the mid-1990s had damaged their land.

The decision brought to an end what has been billed as the biggest piece of environmental litigation ever seen in the UK. We represented Equion Energia, formerly part of the BP group of companies.

The claims were first brought in 2008 and four lead cases ultimately went to court. A five-month trial began in 2014 and culminated with a 648-page judgment in which the judge held that all four claims failed in their entirety.

Building the defence

Gathering evidence to defend such complex historical allegations was a huge challenge. We had to find expert witnesses able to address the claims and factual witnesses to explain how the pipeline was built two decades before.

The farms were in a rural area threatened by guerrilla and paramilitary groups, so site visits were only possible by helicopter under the protection of the Colombian army.

In addition the case was governed by Colombian law and involved interpretations that had never been tested in the Colombian courts, let alone in England.

Testing technology to the limit

We used an electronic document management system to handle the trial bundle – which contained more than 135,000 pages of evidence and at the time was the largest ever used in the Technology and Construction Court.

We tested the court’s technology to its limits by cross-examining witnesses in Medellin via video link, translating in real time between Spanish and English.

The court heard evidence from 23 factual witnesses and 18 expert witnesses across 11 disciplines, with the judge accepting our evidence on every technical point of substance.

A milestone victory

The cases were thrown out, and in his final ruling the judge awarded indemnity costs in favour of BP/Equion for the trial phase of the case and standard costs for the remainder.

The result is seen as a milestone in the fight against ‘class-action tourism’. And in recognition of the challenging nature of the case, the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Europe survey 2017 commended our work in the 'Dispute resolution' category.