A $5bn (£3.8bn) group action pitting representatives of potentially more than 200,000 Brazilians against mining giant BHP Billiton has been filed. It is said to be the largest claim in UK legal history.

International firm SPG Law says it is seeking compensation for victims of the Samarco dam collapse in Brazil in 2015. The disaster was reported to have killed 19 people and displaced around 700, destroying many nearby villages.

The claim, filed in the Business and Property Courts in Liverpool, alleges that a series of failures and errors of judgment over several years lead to the disaster.

In April, the Gazette reported that lawyers acting for the claimants had persuaded the High Court to reject an application to move the case from Liverpool to the Rolls Building in London. BHP was represented in that case by magic circle firm Slaughter and May.

When the claim was announced SPG partner Tom Goodhead told the Gazette the firm chose to litigate in Liverpool not only because the firm is based in the city but also because it was keen to show that cities other than London can be an attractive forum for international dispute resolution.

The claimants submit that BHP Billiton;

  • Had been aware of escalating safety concerns surrounding the dam’s integrity and was knowingly responsible for decision-making around its operation and maintenance;
  • Failed to heed and act upon repeated warnings from independent experts and dam safety advisers regarding recommended safety improvements;
  • Put pursuit of profit over human and environmental risk, despite the company’s stated claims to hold the principles of ‘safety’ and ‘sustainability’ at the heart of the BHP charter of values.

Goodhead said: ‘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.’