An epic legal battle going to trial in federal court in San Francisco this week will ask jurors to decide whether oil giant Chevron Corp. sanctioned human rights abuses that killed and wounded protesters at its Nigerian facilities, or was simply protecting its employees from belligerent kidnappers.
The decade-long legal fight has produced a 2,000-item court docket with mountains of paper in what may become a rare, and potentially precedent-setting, test of company liability for injuries to foreign nationals at the hands of a foreign government.
“We are trying to hold a corporation liable for their bad actions in another country, even if it is committed by their surrogates, a wholly owned subsidiary or by the brutal Nigerian government regime,” said Dan Stormer of Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick in Pasadena, Calif., representing a group of Nigerians who were injured during protests on a Chevron offshore oil platform in 1998.
Chevron attorney Robert Mittelstaedt of the San Francisco office of Jones Day in paints an entirely different picture.
“What we are trying to establish is that a company has a right to report criminal conduct in a country where it is operating,” he said. “And it has a right to assistance from those officials to assist its workers. Their theory is that Chevron should be liable because it reported crime. If that was the law, it would be hard to provide protection in Nigeria, where the only ones who can bear arms are official law enforcement,” he said.
The suit, Bowoto v. Chevron, No. C99-2506SI (N.D. Calif.), alleges that Chevron, in conjunction with the Nigerian military, engaged in torture, assaults and the killing of two protesters over Chevron’s environmental record and failure to hire locals in the delta region near its oil drilling operations.
The protesters, allegedly led by Larry Bowoto, took boats to an offshore barge and platform where the two sides dispute whether it was an attempt at peaceful protest or an effort to hold Chevron workers hostage and extort ransom.
The case is one of a handful in recent years that have used a 200-year-old law, created originally to redress the victims of piracy at sea, and known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. A body of law has developed that allows people injured in other countries to seek redress in U.S. courts. Royal Dutch Shell Co. faces a similar trial in the Southern District of New York on Feb. 9, 2009, in a pair of cases charging it with human rights violations and racketeering in Nigeria. That lawsuit contends that Shell was complicit in the deaths of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others who the suit says were engaged in nonviolent protest against Shell’s environmental record in Nigeria.