A group of Nigerian villagers today lost an appeal to a federal appeals court in San Francisco for a new trial on a lawsuit against Chevron Corp. over a violent incident on an offshore oil platform in 1998.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a federal trial in San Francisco in 2008 that ended in a jury’s exoneration of Chevron was fair.
The human rights lawsuit stemmed from an episode in which about 150 protesters seeking jobs and reparation for environmental damage occupied an oil-drilling platform and barge nine miles off the Nigerian coast.
The Nigerians later claimed the protest was peaceful, while Chevron maintained that workers on the facilities were held hostage and threatened.
On May 28, 1998, the fourth day of the protest, Nigerian security forces summoned by Chevron’s Nigerian subsidiary arrived by helicopter and shot and killed two protesters and wounded several others.
The lawsuit was filed against San Ramon-based Chevron in 1999 by two men who were injured, the family of one man who was killed, and the family of another man who was allegedly tortured in a Nigerian prison and died three years later.
After a five-week trial in the court of U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in 2008, a jury ruled in favor of Chevron and rejected the villagers’ claims the company was liable for torture, cruel treatment, wrongful death, negligence and assault.
In today’s decision, a three-judge appeals panel turned down a series of challenges by the plaintiffs to rulings by Illston on trial evidence and jury instructions as well as to pretrial rulings in which she dismissed certain claims.
Bert Voorhees, a lawyer for the villagers, said, “We’re terribly disappointed. We felt it was a strong appeal.”
He said the villagers’ legal team “is going to weigh our options” and has not yet decided whether to appeal further. The plaintiffs could appeal to an expanded 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit and to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said, “The decision handed down by the 9th Circuit affirms the unanimous verdict for Chevron and further exonerates the company.
“While we are sympathetic to the challenges that people of the Niger Delta face, hostage taking is never the answer,” Robertson said.
In one part of its decision, the appeals court upheld Illston’s conclusion that the villagers couldn’t sue under a 1992 U.S. law, the Torture Victims Protection Act, because that law doesn’t apply to corporations.
Judge Mary Schroeder, joined in that section of the ruling by Judge Jay Bybee, wrote, “Congress’s use of the word ‘individual’ throughout the statute indicates it did not intend the TVPA to apply to corporations.”
The plaintiffs were able to make a claim at the trial for torture under a different law, the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which has been interpreted to allow lawsuits by foreigners against U.S. corporations for violations of human rights law. That law has different standards of proof, however, Voorhees said.
Voorhees said the villagers filed their lawsuit in the United States because they believed that Nigerian courts were prejudiced in favor of oil companies.
“They came looking for justice, but unfortunately, that’s not what they found.
Unfortunately, the jury couldn’t see its way past the differences they felt with the people bringing the case,” Voorhees said.