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Chevron Is Cleared Over Nigeria Killings


DECEMBER 2, 2008

A San Francisco federal jury Monday found that Chevron Corp. was not legally responsible for the 1998 deaths of Nigerian protesters on one of its offshore platforms.

The case is a high-profile blow to the fairly new legal theory that multinational companies can be sued in U.S. courts and held accountable for alleged human-rights violations overseas. It is the second time a U.S. jury has heard a case under the Alien Tort Claims Act alleging that a U.S. company was complicit in overseas human-rights abuses, and the second time it has ruled in favor of the corporation. In 2007, a jury ruled that Drummond Co., a closely held Alabama mining company, was not liable for the deaths of union activists in Colombia. Drummond, as previously reported, has denied any role in the deaths of the union leaders.

The Chevron case stems from a 1998 incident in which about 100 Nigerians occupied an offshore oil facility to protest Chevron’s impact on traditional fishing grounds, among other things. After three days on the platform and a connected barge, Chevron contacted the Nigerian military to remove the protesters.

According to testimony, military personnel began shooting before their helicopters landed on the platform. Two protesters were killed, and others were wounded. Many of the protesters were taken into custody and, according to court filings relating their trial testimony, were tortured and told they would be killed.

These broad facts were never in dispute. Rather, the case turned on whether Chevron’s Nigeria subsidiary, which called in the military, or its U.S.-based parent could be held liable for the military’s actions.

The jury handed up a verdict that only the Nigerian military, not Chevron or its affiliates, was responsible for the deaths on the offshore platform.

The plaintiffs — protesters who were injured in 1998 and descendants of the protesters who died — said they planned to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to EarthRights International, a human-rights group involved in the lawsuit.

California-based Chevron said it was “gratified” by the decision. “It was never Chevron Nigeria Ltd.’s intent that anyone on the platform be harmed, and we deeply regret the loss of life and injuries that occurred,” the company said in a statement.

Legal observers said they didn’t think the verdict will derail efforts to use the Alien Tort Claims Act to hold multinational companies responsible in U.S. courts for overseas human-rights abuses.

“The fact that the case was able to reach the jury, where results are always unpredictable, shows these cases can be tried,” said Jonathan C. Drimmer, a partner with the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. The case shows that “human-rights lawsuits against corporations can get past motions to dismiss and reach a jury. I don’t see this slowing the trend.”

The case, known as Bowoto v. Chevron, “shows the facts warrant decisions by juries, and that is an important statement,” said Tyler Giannini, clinical director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

Still, corporate lawyers were able to breathe a sigh of relief that the jury returned an unequivocal victory for Chevron. But the Alien Tort Claims Act faces another test in coming months: Royal Dutch Shell PLC faces a similar suit in New York City next year over whether the company was complicit in any way for the 1995 death of Nigeria activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The company has called the allegation “false and without merit.”

Write to Russell Gold at [email protected]


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