Victims of a toxic waste spill scandal in Ivory Coast won a High Court case on Thursday against their British law firm.
The claimants complained that solicitors Leigh Day failed to ensure a compensation package of USD 8.6 million in damages reached them.
In 2009 the oil company had agreed to pay around $42.4 million to 30,000 people affected by the dumping of caustic soda and petroleum residues in the economic capital Abidjan in 2006.
I am extremely pleased for our clients, who have been waiting for seven years to get their compensation.
However, a group of 6,624 claimants received nothing from the settlement, after $8.6 million of the payout was fraudulently withdrawn.
Expert evidence showed that a health crisis ensued in which, according to official estimates, 15 people died and more than 100,000 sought medical attention after exposure to the waste fumes.
High Court judge Andrew Smith ruled on Thursday that the London-based legal firm Leigh Day, who represented the claimants, had been negligent in using an Ivorian bank account to park the lump sum, leaving it open to embezzlement.
“I am extremely pleased for our clients, who have been waiting for seven years to get their compensation,” the claimants’ lawyer Kalilou Fadiga, from legal firm Harding Mitchell, told AFP after Thursday’s ruling.
The $8.6 million was withdrawn by an organisation claiming to be the victims’ representative, but which was in fact a “mechanism to embezzle” with the help of corrupt officials, according to Fadiga.
It was also revealed that Leigh Day senior partner Martyn Day had been warned by senior lawyer Daniel Brennan that “once the money goes into the (Ivory Coast) system, it is gone as far as the ordinary people are concerned”.
But the legal firm went against advice to distribute the money from a European account.
Fadiga said it was “definitely” a blow for Leigh Day, which has built up a reputation as champion of the underdog after fighting high-profile cases against the British government on behalf of the Kenyan Mau Mau and detainees during the War in Iraq.