Beirut port explosion: UK defendant held liable

28 February, 2023

On 31 January 2023 the High Court in London held Savaro Ltd, a company registered in England and Wales, liable for death, personal injury and property damage in the case of Beirut Bar Association & Ors v Savaro Ltd.

This is the first judgment worldwide to be obtained on behalf of the victims of the Beirut port explosion of 4 August 2020. The explosion caused 218 fatalities, over 7000 injuries and US$15bn of property damage, with litigation in Lebanon, London and the United States.

The claimants alleged that Savaro owned 2,750MT of ammonium nitrate which was brought to Lebanon aboard m/v RHOSUS in November 2013 and left in a port warehouse adjoining commercial and residential areas of central Beirut, until it exploded in 2020. Pursuant to Art.4 of the Rome II regulation, the law applicable to the alleged tort was Lebanese law. The claimants alleged that Savaro was strictly liable as ‘guardian’ of the nitrate, under Art. 131 of the Lebanese Code of Obligations and Contracts, and/or that by abandoning the nitrate at the port, Savaro caused unjust damage for the purpose of Art.122 and/or was negligent for the purpose of Art.123. Furthermore, Savaro had made representations to the Lebanese authorities in August 2015 to the effect that it was the owner of the nitrate. The claimants relied upon those representations to find a quasi estoppel – “la théorie de l’apparence” under Lebanese law – with regard to ownership and/or guardianship.  Judgment was ultimately obtained pursuant to CPR 3.5 following Savaro’s breach of an ‘unless’ order obtained by the claimants, on strike-out terms, that Savaro should disclose the identity of its UBO, to whom Savaro had referred, but failed to name, in its pleaded defence.

The quantum hearing in the London proceedings has been listed for June 2023.  Proceedings are ongoing in Lebanon and Texas to identify other liable parties, including those who failed to ensure that the ammonium nitrate was removed from the port soon after its arrival.

Neil Hart KC and Akash Sonecha acted pro bono, instructed by Camille Abousleiman, Adam Silver, Abdul Azeem, Craig Watson and Richard Herstell of Dechert LLP on behalf of the Claimants.