For over 10 years, ERI has been representing Nigerian villagers in their quest for justice against Chevron Corporation, after a brutal attack on unarmed protestors in 1998 left two Nigerians dead, several others shot and wounded, and still others tortured by Nigerian military and police. The villagers from Nigeria's Ilaje ethnic group, who occupied Chevron's Parabe platform and an adjacent barge in protest of environmental and economic devastation of their communities, were attacked by security forces flown to the platform by Chevron helicopters and paid by Chevron after the assault. Their continuing search for accountability reached another milestone today, as lawyers for the Nigerian plaintiffs argued an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, seeking a new trial against the oil giant. (Audio recording from the appeal.)
In November 2008, a team of lawyers including ERI's attorneys brought the case, Bowoto v. Chevron, to a jury trial in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the trial was marred by several serious errors that undermined the result. For example, even though the trial judge had previously ruled that Chevron would need to prove that the Nigerian security forces had acted reasonably in shooting and beating the Ilaje protestors, the court issued jury instructions that stated the opposite--that the plaintiffs would need to prove that the soldiers acted unreasonably, and that they would need to meet the beyond a reasonable doubt standard ordinarily reserved for criminal cases. Chevron also repeatedly introduced inflammatory evidence about violent acts by Ilajes other than the plaintiffs, using these incidents to argue that "hostage-taking" and "kidnaping" were part of the "mind set" of the Ilajes – "It's something that they would do." The court also dismissed some of the plaintiffs' international law claims under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). At the end of the trial, the jury found for Chevron on all counts.
ERI hopes that the Court of Appeals will correct these errors, and send the case back for a new trial. Even the judge who presided over the trial determined that Chevron's racial stereotyping of the Ilajes was "inappropriate," but nonetheless declined to order a new trial. Theresa Traber of Traber & Voorhees, one of the lead lawyers in the Bowoto trial, argued the case to the Ninth Circuit today, highlighting all of the errors that prevented the plaintiffs from getting a fair trial. One ruling that particularly concerns ERI is the judge's conclusion that the TVPA does not apply to corporations--that while a person who aids a torturer can be held accountable, a corporation that does the same thing cannot.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the appeal, however, the plaintiffs have achieved a tremendous victory already. The fact that Nigerian villagers, who were treated as worthless in the course of Chevron's operations in Nigeria, could force the world's fourth-largest corporation to stand trial in its own hometown demonstrates remarkable progress for corporate accountability worldwide. The Bowoto case builds on precedents set in ERI's pathbreaking case Doe v. Unocal, and subsequent cases by ERI (and others) build on precedents set in Bowoto--for example, an important ruling that a U.S. parent corporation could be held liable for the acts of its foreign subsidiaries.
Chevron, for its part, is increasingly under scrutiny for its actions around the world. ERI recently released an alternative annual report, The True Cost of Chevron, in which more than 20 organizations came together to highlight environmental, labor, and human rights problems in Chevron operations in more than a dozen countries. While full accountability has yet to be realized, these abuses no longer lie in the shadows, and Chevron's way of doing business in disregard of local communities cannot be sustained.