Victims of Brazil’s ‘sinking city’ receive positive news to have case heard in the Netherlands

September 22, 2022

People from communities that were lost to damage caused by salt mines in Northern Brazil are celebrating after securing the right to sue petrochemical company Braskem in the Dutch courts.  

The claimants, who have seen their homes collapse and neighbourhoods disappear beyond repair in the municipality of Maceió, Alagoas, due to the nature of Braskem’s mining, are one step closer to justice. 

Represented by global law firm Pogust Goodhead and local co-counsel Lemstra Van der Korst, they will now have their case for compensation assessed in the Dutch courts after Braskem S.A, the largest petro-chemical company in Brazil, failed to offer adequate and fair redress.  

Four decades of earthquakes in Maceió

Residents of the area have watched in horror as their community has been hit by small earthquakes caused by nearby mining for salt underground for over four decades.  

Many have been evacuated to escape the tumbling walls, buildings and businesses after the structures built on top of now unsafe land threaten to topple further. While few others remain – resolute not to accept small sums of money offered by Braskem to relocate.  

The exodus and crumbling of buildings are now evident in the ghost-town-like images of the neighbourhoods, which were once home to hundreds of small businesses.  

Braskem have offered what lawyers say are unfair sums of compensation after being obliged to remove families from the ‘red’ danger zones in the area, but have failed to accept liability.  

Furthermore, the company’s ‘moral damages’ offers have been made on a per-household rather than on a per person basis and have equated to the same as the value of lost luggage by an airline in Brazil or less, according to caselaw from Brazilian Courts. 

Claimants rejoice at ruling

Several of the claimants attended the hearing in May in Rotterdam, where lawyers argued that it is necessary to litigate against Braskem in the Dutch courts where the company have their European headquarters.  

Maria Rosangela Ferreria Da Silva attended and told the court she and her family had lost their sense of identity when her neighbourhood crumbled and she and her family were forced to move away. She lost her mum shortly afterwards and has been fighting for justice ever since.  

She said: “I would say justice has been done. Thank God, I wake up with this news; I will be the happiest woman in the world. It will be my best gift, after being alive, that’s it.

“The God I trust has never abandoned me. So, I would say ‘justice has been done’, and thank God.” 

The ruling rejected all of Braskem’s arguments against jurisdiction in the Dutch Courts – and an application to appeal. The court stated: “The claims against both Braskem SA and the Braskem NL entities have a delictual basis. In the main proceedings, in addition to Braskem SA, the Braskem NL entities, as part of the Braskem group, were held jointly and severally liable for the (same) damaging consequences of the earthquakes (as a result of mining activities) on the basis of the environmental liability law in general and the doctrine of indirect polluter’s liability in particular, according to plaintiffs in Brazil. In this sense, the claims against the Braskem NL entities on the one hand and Braskem SA on the other are inextricably linked. 

It added: “The Braskem group, and therewith Braskem SA as top-holding of the group, has chosen to locate the entities that take the financial decisions, and its European headquarters, in Rotterdam. Against this background, Braskem SA could reasonably foresee that, if not only these entities but also herself – as top-holding – were to be sued, this could happen before this Court. 

The jurisdictional success is the latest in a run of cases for lawyers at Pogust Goodhead – who recently won an appeal to have the case of 200,000 victims of Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, the Mariana dam disaster, litigated in the UK courts. They have also secured settlements in relation to VW and British Airways claimants.  

Now the claim has been accepted to be heard in the Netherlands, the case is expected to enter the merits phase where liability is established.  

Time for Braskem to do the right thing

Partner at Pogust Goodhead, Marc Krestin, said: “Taking this case to the Dutch courts is about getting justice for the people who have lost everything as a result of the mining activities of Braskem. They have lost their homes, their community and their sense of identity due to this large corporation taking what it wants from the land and not giving a second thought to the environment and people around them that it may harm.  

“We are here to see that this does not keep happening.  

“We now urge Braskem to take note of this ruling, stop denying responsibility for its actions and do the right thing by all those that have been harmed.” 

Pogust Goodhead pursues the case in partnership with law firms Neves Macieywski, Garcia e Advogados Associados, Omena Advocacia, Araújo e Máximo Advogados Associados, and Lemstra Van der Korst.  

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