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| 4 minutes read

France: NGOs and individuals file a criminal complaint against major French energy company’s directors and main shareholders

On 21 May 2024, three NGOs and eight individuals filed a criminal complaint with the Paris public prosecution office, targeting the board of directors of a major energy company (“the Company”), including its CEO, and its main shareholders. They have accused the Company of contributing to climate change. The alleged offences mentioned in the complaint include deliberate endangerment of lives, involuntary manslaughter, failure to address a disaster, and damage to biodiversity.

The information was released just three days before the Company’s annual meeting on 24 May 2024, at which the company’s climate strategy was the subject of a shareholder resolution.

Key Takeaways:

  • Criminal proceedings related to alleged climate change wrongdoings are on the rise globally. However, criminal complaints targeting natural persons (although indirectly as in this case) are relatively new.
  • The complaint highlights the potential criminal liability of key decision-makers in companies. 
  • The claimants are seeking to rely on scientific evidence to establish a causal link between the Company’s decisions and extreme climate change events (also known as “attribution science”).

The complaint

Each of the individual alleged victims, hailing from several countries (including Australia, Zimbabwe, France, Belgium, the Philippines, Greece, and Pakistan), claims to have personally experienced extreme climate-related events such as storms, heatwaves, and floods. Some have also reported losing relatives due to these events. Three NGOs (two French and one based in Mexico) have joined the complaint.

Although the complaint is against unidentified persons, it specifically targets the Company’s directors, including its CEO, and main shareholders. The claimants argue that the Company’s strategic direction contributed to climate change by expanding fossil fuel extraction, alleging that the Company is among the top emitters of greenhouse gases. 

The alleged offences mentioned in the complaint include deliberate endangerment of lives (article 223-1 of the French criminal code), involuntary manslaughter (article 221-6 of the French criminal code), failure to address a disaster (article 223-7 of the French criminal code), and damage to biodiversity (article L. 415-3 of the French environment code). 

The claimants rely on scientific literature, particularly the IPCC climate change reports, to claim that the Company’s directors and main shareholders were aware of the negative impacts of the company’s activities on climate change but continued to expand those activities despite the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. According to various press releases, the complaint, through analysis of votes during the Company’s general meetings, highlights the responsibility of executives and shareholders who voted against resolutions aimed at aligning the Company’s emissions with the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Considering the principle of personal liability in criminal law, it remains to be seen whether scientific evidence, and climate change “attribution science” in particular, may be relied upon to impose criminal liability. 

In its latest decision of 9 April 2024, the European Court of Human Rights relied on  an IPCC climate change report to hold Switzerland liable under Article 8 of the European Convention (which protects the right to private and family life), but the context in criminal proceedings is quite different (for more information on  the ECHR decision, see our previous blog post). 

French case law has admitted, albeit in exceptional cases, that a company director may be criminally liable for involuntary manslaughter, under certain conditions, when the law imposes a duty of care and safety. However, this has only been applied in cases where violation of the law had a direct causal relationship with the death of the person. 

If the current criminal complaint eventually proves successful, the defendants could face fines and imprisonment.

Other criminal complaints related to climate change in France

Criminal complaints related to climate change are on the rise globally and in France in particular. Yet, complaints alleging liability of directors and shareholders in this respect, as in the present case, are not common. 

In October 2020, a criminal complaint was filed against the same Company (but not its directors or shareholders) by three NGOs, which argued that the Company’s communications regarding its climate strategy constituted misleading commercial practices. A criminal investigation was subsequently opened by the Nanterre’s prosecutor office in December 2021. Although the existence of the complaint and the investigation was revealed in the press in January 2023 (see Le Monde article), the proceedings remain confidential. 

In September 2023, another criminal complaint was lodged in Nanterre by four NGOs against the same Company for the offences of involuntary manslaughter and unintentional bodily harm, failure to combat a disaster, unintentional harm to a person’s integrity and destruction, degradation or deterioration of property belonging to others that may create a danger to people. According to the press (see Le Monde article), the NGOs specifically targeted two projects in Tanzania and Uganda, alleging that, by continuing to develop new oil and gas infrastructures, the Company contributes to worsening the climate crisis and endangers the world’s population.

In November 2023, NGOs and the media filed another complaint with the French financial prosecutor’s office against four major French banks, based on different grounds, calling for a criminal investigation on the basis of money laundering and concealment, due to the alleged banks’ financial support (through the purchase of corporate bonds) for activities linked to deforestation and the associated profits in the Amazon (see press coverage). 

It is still not known whether the last two criminal complaints have led to judicial investigations. 

Next steps

The Paris prosecutor now has three months to determine whether to open a judicial investigation or not. 

If the claim were to be dismissed, the claimants could directly seize the investigation judge, who must then investigate the alleged facts. 



climate change & environment, litigation, corporates, france, blog posts