US$5bn BHP Billiton lawsuit becomes largest claim in UK legal history

A group action lawsuit, brought on behalf of 235,000 Brazilian individuals and organisations, including municipal governments, utility companies, indigenous tribes and the Catholic Church, has been served on BHP Billiton. The Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate ‘knew of the risks’ surrounding the deteriorating condition of a Brazilian dam in the years prior to its deadly collapse in 2015, yet were ‘woefully negligent’ in its duty to prevent the catastrophe.

The Fundão dam near Belo Horizonte in eastern Brazil collapsed on 5 November 2015, causing a mudslide that killed 19 people, destroyed the nearby villages of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira and devastated the Rio Doce river basin, the second-largest river system in Brazil.

The failure of the dam, which held 55 million cubic metres of iron ore tailings, an industrial by-product of the company’s mining operations, caused the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.

The group action suit describes in detail a series of failures and errors of judgment over several years leading to the disaster.

Partner at SPG Law, Tom Goodhead said BHP knew of the risks surrounding the Fundão dam and either acted upon too slowly or completely sidestepped the repeated warnings and recommendations of dam safety experts.

“Driven by concern for declining revenues amidst the falling market price of iron ore, the company took risks, increased production and turned a blind eye to dangers that ultimately claimed lives and destroyed communities.

“BHP was woefully negligent in its duty of care and the damages sought are entirely commensurate with the devastation the company has wrought upon the people of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo and Brazil.”

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