Nearly 2,000 people in Zambia have won the right to sue mining company Vedanta in the English courts over pollution.
The decision of the Supreme Court in London could have implications for other companies over their activities abroad, according to the law firm representing the villagers.
The case began in 2015 when the villagers launched a case against Vedanta – which is listed in India but has a legal base in Britain – and Zambian company Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), alleging their land had been polluted.
They say the water pollution caused by Nchanga Copper Mine has affected their health and farming activities.
Nchanga Copper Mine is owned by Vedanta through its subsidiary KCM and is the second-largest in the world, according to court papers.
The villagers wanted the case to be heard in the UK but Vedanta challenged this and the matter went to the Supreme Court.
In a summary of the decision, judges considered EU law, whether there is a “real triable issue” against Vedanta, whether England is the “proper place” to hear the case and a risk that “substantial justice would not be obtainable” in Zambia.
Judges said: “Having rejected [Vedanta’s] case on abuse of EU law and real triable issue, but having upheld their case on proper place, I would, but for their failure on the issue as to substantial justice, have been minded to allow their appeal.
“As it is however I consider that this appeal should be dismissed, on the substantial justice issue.”
Judges had said that the claimants were extremely poor and there were no legal teams with the experience to litigate effectively against large companies.
Vedanta said the judgment was procedural, relating only to the jurisdiction of the English courts to hear the claims.
“It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims,” it said.
“Vedanta and KCM will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time.”
The mining firm had said Zambia was the “natural forum” for the case and that the parent company did not control operations in Zambia, which were governed by Zambian law.
The villagers are represented by Leigh Day and the law firm’s senior partner Martyn Day said: “I hope this judgement will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation but as important commitments that they must put into action.”
Similar cases are pending between Royal Dutch Shell and Nigerians in relation to oil spills and Unilever and tea plantation workers in Kenya in connection with ethnic violence in 2008.