Australian Federal Court rules in favour of 15,000 seaweed farmers in the Montara oil spill class action

22 March 2021

More than 15,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers may be compensated after oil and gas company PTTEPAA was found responsible for the devastation of their seaweed crops and livelihoods by the Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea in 2009.

The central question before the Court was whether the Montara oil spill was the cause of the catastrophic damage to the Indonesian seaweed farmers crops along the coastal areas of Rote-Kupang located 250 kilometres to the north west of the blowout site.

In a resounding judgment Federal Court Justice David Yates found on Friday that Montara oil reached the Rote-Kupang region and caused the damage to the seaweed crops.

The class action was brought against the company that operated the Montara Wellhead Platform, PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd (‘PTTEPAA’), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Thai oil and gas giant PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited.

The Court found that PTTEPAA owed a duty of care to Mr Sanda and the seaweed farmers, and that it breached that duty in failing to properly seal the H1 Well that “created a very high risk of a blowout” and “that no other consideration has been raised which militates against a finding of that breach.”

The lead applicant in the class action, Mr Daniel Sanda is a seaweed farmer from Rote Island. The Court also found that PTTEPAA is liable to pay Mr Sanda’s damages for his losses in the period 2009 – 2014 and assessed those damages as being 252 million rupiah (approximately AUD$22,600, not including interest). The other seaweed farmers’ claims for losses will need to be assessed.

This is one of the first environmental class actions to go to trial and win and the first funded class action to be brought against an Australian company for cross border pollution-related damage suffered by foreign claimants.

Ellora MacPherson, CIO at Harbour, commented that “Friday’s judgment in Australia is a significant victory for Mr Sanda and the thousands of other seaweed farmers whose livelihoods were affected by the Montara oil spill in 2009.

It has been a hard fought result and I would like to congratulate Harbour’s Stephen O\’Dowd, Nicholas Marler and Diogo Gouveia, as well as Ben Slade, Ellen Parry and Richard Ryan of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers on their dedication to this case since it launched in 2016.”

Harbour’s senior director of funding Stephen O’Dowd said:, “This is a fabulous and well-deserved result for Mr Sanda and his legal team, led expertly by Maurice Blackburn. They have put an incredible amount of hard work and skill into the case, and I am delighted that Harbour has been able to support them through such a long and difficult process.”

The Montara oil spill is considered one of the Australia’s worst oil disasters. A copy of the entire 330-page written judgment is available here.

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