U.S. SC won't take on torture case against Chevron

Michael P. Tremoglie Apr. 27, 2012, 7:20am

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The Supreme Court denied Monday an appeal by Nigerian nationals who sued Chevron for damages using American law.

The Nigerians claimed that Chevron was responsible for killings and torture by Nigerian authorities after the company called them to expel protesters who occupied a Chevron offshore oil platform and took hostages.

The Nigerians used the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim's Protection Act to sue Chevron. But for the purposes of the appeal, only the issue of the TVPA was argued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tossed the suit out previously, holding that corporations are not amenable to suit under the TVPA.

The lead plaintiff, Larry Bowoto, was among 150 Nigerians who took control of a Chevron Nigeria Ltd. oil platform nine miles off the coast of Nigeria in the spring of 1998. They took more than 100 workers hostage. The group protested the way Nigerian community leaders allocated Chevron Nigeria jobs.

Before seizing the facilities, Chevron alleged the group sent letters threatening violence if their demands for money and additional jobs were not met. Chevron said the group was denounced by community leaders, who advised them not to acknowledge the demands.

After occupying the platform, Chevron alleged the group used violence and threats of violence to intimidate the workers. For three days and nights, they refused to accept concessions offered by Chevron's hostage negotiator and held him hostage for several hours.

The Nigerian Navy sent a rescue team to free the workers on the fourth day. The Nigerian protesters deny any violent acts occurred. They claim they protested peacefully and the authorities were not needed.

The Nigerians initiated a class action lawsuit in 1999 charging Chevron with human rights violations including extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity and inhuman treatment. They also claimed they were tortured.

The protesters felt that Chevron should bear liability in U.S. courts. They brought claims using the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. The case went to trial in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on Oct. 27, 2008.

A nine-member jury in San Francisco unanimously acquitted Chevron of all liability Dec. 1, 2008. Judge Susan Illston denied the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial.

The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The Appeals court affirmed the District Court that the Alien Tort Statute did not apply in this case and that the Torture Victims Protection Act did not apply to corporations.

The plaintiffs appealed the TVPA question to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to hear the case. This denial by the Court validates the concept that corporations are not liable using the TVPA.

Donald Earl Childress III, Associate Professor of Law at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Calif., is familiar with international law and civil liability. He said the Court's denial of certiorari "encourages the view" that the TVPA's statutory language does not include corporations.

"Of course, Congress is free to amend the TVPA to account for that," he said.

In February, the court heard arguments in the case Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, then ordered attorneys in the case to expand their arguments on the scope of a 1789 law that gives aliens a right to sue in U.S. courts.

How the Chevron case relates to the Kiobel case and whether the Alien Tort Statute can be used to sue corporations is another matter. He noted that while the Court set the Kiobel ATS case for reargument, the Court did not think this was necessary for the TVPA.

"Kiobel is a different case, as it is not what the plain words of the statute mean but whether corporations are amendable to suit for violations of international law," Childress said.

"The now set-for-reargument Kiobel case is broader, including whether individuals or corporations may be subject to suit under the ATS for torts occurring in foreign sovereign territory."

Childress observed that the Court's review of the ATS and TVPA might be different.

"The question for the Court in Kiobel is really unique to the ATS-namely, whether it reaches the conduct of individuals and corporations occurring in foreign sovereign territory," he said. "In short, the question in Kiobel is now not so much about corporations but about extraterritorial application of the ATS."

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