Greenpeace has been involved in direct action from around or before it was officially founded in 1969 - 71. Before this month I have not heard of civil cases being brought against them. Earlier this month it was reported that Shell is suing Greenpeace for $2.1m in damages over fossil fuel protest in North Sea.

My understanding is that basically all direct action is illegal by definition. What is it about this particular protest that has lead to civil claims?

  • are you asking how companies can sue for damages?
    – Tiger Guy
    Nov 21 at 13:47
  • No, I am asking what it is about this case that lead to a damages claim when so many others did not.
    – User65535
    Nov 21 at 13:54
  • 1
    The linked Wikipedia article links to another that defines "direct action" as "economic and political behavior in which participants use agency—for example economic or physical power—to achieve their goals." Under this definition, all direct action is most definitely not illegal. For example, if a group of people has a common goal of celebrating a birthday might use their economic power to purchase a cake and their physical power to carry it to somebody's home, they are employing direct action. What do you actually mean to denote by the phrase "direct action"?
    – phoog
    Nov 21 at 23:20
  • 2
    The assumption that this is an unusual response to direct action is wrong. Greenpeace has been sued many, many times.
    – Dale M
    Nov 22 at 3:54
  • To rephrase @DaleM's comment, why would you assume that your never having heard of something implies that it doesn't exist rather than that your information is incomplete?
    – phoog
    Nov 23 at 7:43

2 Answers 2


Greenpeace has been sued many, many times

While you may not have heard of it before, suits against (and by) Greenpeace and other environmental (and other protest) organisations are a relatively common strategy. While many of the top hits in a Google search for "Greenpeace sued" link to the Shell case because it's topical, in my feed, there are plenty of others just on the first page (YMMV).

What are the legal basis for such suits?

There are a whole lot of torts that have potentially been committed by Greenpeace in direct action protests that may or may not have analogous crimes. There have also been suits bought for defamation and trademark or copyright violations.

For the current case, the unlawful boarding of Shell's platform may have involved:

  • trespass to goods
  • nuisance
  • intimidation
  • negligence
  • tortious interference
  • conspiracy

Shell is seeking an injunction preventing Greenpeace from interfering with their facilities in the future, which, if breached, would be the crime of contempt of court.

They are also seeking damages for the cost of dealing with the occupation. This will include their immediate costs in dealing with the protesters at the time, plus checking for and repairing any damage they may have caused. However, by far the most significant component is lost production: a deep-sea well can produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day. At $80/barrel less production costs of (generously) $20/barrel, Shell can argue that each day's delay delay in production caused by the protest has an economic cost of $6 million.


A wronged party has discretion to sue or not sue. Many considerations go into deciding whether to sue, including:

  • likelihood of success
  • likely amount recovered
  • ability of defendant to pay
  • the time, money, and attention that would be diverted to litigation
  • the avoidance or seeking of publicity in the media
  • potential deterrence
  • the possibility of a negotiated outcome

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