Friday, January 2, 2009

December 2008

Jones Day Leads Chevron to Landmark Trial Victory in Alien Tort Statute Case

Jones Day's San Francisco office won a jury verdict on all counts for client Chevron Corporation and two of its subsidiaries in an Alien Tort Statute ("ATS") case that had been pending in the Northern District of California since 1999. The case was one of the first ATS cases to go to a jury and has great significance for multinational corporations operating in foreign countries.

The case arose from the takeover of an offshore platform, barge, and tugboat by a group of Nigerian villagers. After three days of negotiations, Chevron Nigeria Ltd. ("CNL") called upon the Nigerian Navy to rescue the 150+ workers who had been held hostage for three days. In the course of the rescue, two of the villagers were shot and killed and one other was seriously injured. Another Nigerian villager was arrested and allegedly tortured while he was detained by the military and police.

In 1999, a coalition of law firms and public interest groups sued Chevron on behalf of four Nigerians, alleging violations of the ATS--which under some circumstances allows foreign citizens to bring claims for violations of international law in U.S. courts--including assault, battery, negligence, and wrongful death. Plaintiffs sued Chevron Corporation and two of its U.S. subsidiaries, not CNL.

The case raised complex issues relating to choice-of-law, vicarious liability, the Death on the High Seas Act, and questions of first impression about the contours of international law claims under the ATS. Jones Day succeeded in dismissing a number of claims before the case reached the jury, including all allegations of direct and alter ego liability, RICO, Crimes Against Humanity, and Summary Execution under the ATS, and all claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

The trial started on October 27, 2008, and featured testimony from CNL's chief negotiator, the CNL employee who led the team that decided to call the Navy for the rescue, and the barge workers who were held hostage by the Nigerian villagers. The jury also heard--often through an interpreter--from some of the Nigerians present on the barge and during the subsequent detention.

Plaintiffs' trial theme was to portray themselves as "peaceful environmental protestors" engaged in no wrongdoing; defendants' theme was that CNL's actions were reasonable because it is the right and duty of a company to call law enforcement for help when its workers are held hostage and negotiations have broken down. Key defense evidence, including a photo taken on the tugboat showing that the villagers had access to weapons and a letter, signed by the plaintiffs, threatening violence and sea piracy, belied the plaintiffs' claims to "peacefulness" and bolstered the reasonableness of CNL's actions. On December 1, the jury returned a verdict for each Chevron defendant on every count after less than two days of deliberations.

Interesting article on ramifications:

Plaintiff-leaning (but informative) blog of the trial: