‘It’s Time For Justice’: Civil Case Against TÜV SÜD Over Brumadinho Dam Disaster To Begin In Munich

September 24, 2021

The Mayor of Brumadinho has stated that it is ‘time for justice’ as the countdown begins ahead of the first hearing in a landmark civil action brought against TÜV SÜD by victims of the Brazilian dam disaster.

In the hearing, TÜV SÜD will be accused of certifying an unsafe tailings dam as safe and applying safety verification standards that did not match international standards.

It will take place on 28 September 2021 at 9am in the Courtroom of the Higher Regional Court, Munich.

Brumadinho dam disaster

The failure of the dam in 2019 released around 13 million cubic meters of highly toxic ore mud, which burst through the offices of the mining operation and cascaded over local communities and water systems.

This caused a significant humanitarian and environmental disaster and resulted in the deaths of 270 people.

Avimar Barcelos, Mayor of Brumadinho, hopes that this process will finally provide some form of justice for his community.

Accusations against TÜV SÜD

This negligence allowed the continued operation of the dam and the mine, ultimately leading to the disaster.

Our lawyers, representing the community of Brumadinho, have stated that the company has ‘blood on their hands’ and are hoping that by winning the case on behalf of one of the victims of the disaster, they will set a precedent that will mean more than 1,200 additional claimants who lost family members or were directly affected by the dam failure can claim against the firm for damages.

Pedro Martins, Partner, said: “We are now on TÜV SÜD’s legal doorstep in Germany, and now they must reckon with what they did thousands of miles away.

“Our evidence shows that TÜV SÜD certified this dam as safe when it was not safe. This was a fact that they knew but ignored – a despicable combination of corporate corruption and wilful negligence that directly led to 270 deaths and the destruction of communities, families, livelihoods and a precious environment.”

Comment from Brumadinho’s Mayor

Barcelos said: “It’s time for justice. Our municipality has not received the necessary assistance to compensate the families, or to rebuild its economy, whether by strengthening rural farmers, tourism or attracting new businesses.

“Brumadinho is trying to get back on its feet morally, socially and economically and to this day we are doing it all by ourselves. But I am very confident in German justice.

“Brumadinho has suffered with the death of more than 270 people and will have to deal with all this trauma forever. But the corporate entities responsible have gone unpunished. What has happened cannot be undone, but we hope and pray that the case in Germany can provide some form of justice for our people.”

Pogust Goodhead’s partnership with Manner Spangenberg

Jan Erik Spangenberg from German law firm Manner Spangenberg has partnered with Pogust Goodhead on the case and said: “It will be a relief for the victims when they can finally have their day in court. The victims demand and deserve a clear determination of responsibility for the loss of their loved ones.”

“Documents show that the dam did not meet minimum safety standards in two out of four categories. In one instance, the measured probability of failure was three times greater than the acceptable limit.

“It is incredibly difficult to understand how a business could disregard these findings. They knew that the workers would continue to work in the mine and that the people of Brumadinho would continue to go about their everyday life directly below the dam and in the path of the toxic mud wave.”

The one-day hearing, which is open to the media and general public, will now take place in the Courtroom of the Higher Regional Court Munich, at Stadelheim Prison (JVA Stadelheim, Case No 28 O 14821/19) on 28 September 2021, 9 am CEST. Further dates for the examination of witnesses are expected to be established thereafter. The court previously suggested a mediation process, which was rejected by TÜV SÜD in October 2020.

Case history

On 25 January 2019, a dam at the Córrego do Feijão mine near Brumadinho in eastern Brazil collapsed, resulting in what would later be known as the Brumadinho Dam disaster.

The dam was used to store iron ore tailings, a toxic waste product of the mining operations of Brazilian mining giant Vale SA. The failure of the dam saw 13 million metres of toxic mud tear through the offices of Vale’s mining operation before cascading through the communities below.

As the contracted safety certification partner of Vale for the operation, the claim submits that TÜV SÜD was a “complacent assistant of the mining company”, influenced to certify the dam as safe because they wanted “to keep in business with this important client [Vale]”.

Investigations by the Brazilian Prosecution Office showed that TÜV SÜD could never have carried out adequate safety certification as they did not have complete documentation of works carried out before they were hired – a time in which the capacity of the dam was raised 11 times, up to an 86-metre height, adding more and more pressure to the dam.

The claimants submit that there was correspondence between Vale and TÜV SÜD in May 2018, in which employees asked if TÜV SÜD would lose their business with Vale if they denied the safety of one of the many sedimentation ponds belonging to Vale.

In the investigations by the Brazilian Prosecution Office, it was also found that TÜV SÜD applied safety verification standards that did not match international standards. They used safety standards that were described as ‘market adjustments’, meaning that, compared to international standards, lower safety standards were applied.

Litigation in Brazil

Major litigation relating to environmental disasters in Brazil is extremely inefficient. The claim states that the claimants cannot access adequate justice in Brazil because “the local legal system is totally ineffective, which can lead to decades of waiting for a decision”. Neither can they access justice from Vale.

However, TÜV SÜD’s misconduct means they can be held liable in the German courts at their Munich corporate seat to compensate victims for damages under applicable Brazilian Law.

Both German and Brazilian prosecutors have separately been looking into Vale and TÜV SÜD’s roles in the disaster from a criminal perspective. Among those being investigated is a German director of TÜV SÜD, who was the manager responsible on the ground in Brazil, and four specialists from the company.

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