This English Supreme Court case arose out a major oil spill that occurred off the coast of Nigeria in December 2011. Two Nigerian citizens sued two companies, one in Nigeria and one in England, that were allegedly responsible for the oil spill just one week before the sixth year claims limitation (prescription) period under English law. After the six years had run the claimant’s tried to substitute another party and to amend their claim. The court found that there was no continuing nuisance and the limitation period did not run from day-to-day. There was no continuing nuisance because the oil spill was a one-off event contaminating the claimant’s land with no repeated activity or state of affairs.

The English action for private nuisance is committed where the defendant’s activity, or state of affairs for which the defendant is responsible, unduly interferes with the use and enjoyment of the claimant’s land. It deals with the respective rights of neighbours. Undue interference with the claimant’s use and enjoyment of their land must be proved.

In general, a continuing nuisance is one where there is a repeated activity by the defendant or an ongoing state of affairs for which the defendant continues to be responsible. Examples are interference on a regular basis by smoke, noise and vibrations. But where there is a one-off event, only one action flows from that event otherwise people could sue for damages on a daily basis. It was irrelevant that the oil was still present on the claimant’s land and had not been removed or cleaned up.

Under South African law, the law of neighbours deals with the rights of those who are neighbours. A one-off event like the oil spill caused between people who are not the neighbours would be an ordinary claim in the law of delict where the once-and-for-all rule applies to such events. Either way the same principles would apply in South Africa. Extinctive prescription for an event such as the oil spill would start running on the day of the event or the day or when the claimant could reasonably ascertain who was responsible for the event. There will be no continuing cause of action.

[Jalla v Shell International Trading and Shipping Co Limited [2023] UK SC 16]