Yesterday, a New York federal judge overturned a $9.5 billion Ecuadorean court judgment against Chevron for failure to clean up toxic oil drlling waste in an indigenous area, Lago Agrio, of the Amazon.
This was a dramatic and heartbreaking example of how a company with multi-billion dollars in profits, like Chevron, can delay a case — and then shop around to find a favorable venue (even after losing the lawsuit) until the verdict is overturned. Meanwhile, the US lawyer, Steven Donziger, who had been representing the residents of Lago Agrio, was ultimately the excuse the judge used for reversing the fine against Chevron. It was imposed, remember, by an Ecuadorean court.
Many of the local residents who live near the toxic pits and polluted waters that Chevron was responsible for cleaning up (the toxic time bomb had been created by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2000) filed a class action lawsuit in 2003. They claimed, as was shown in a documentary that damns Chevron with the details of the case, “Crude,” that Chevron was allowing the continued pollution of water and the earth that the indigenous Ecuadorians depend upon for subsistence, resulting in illnesses, deaths, and diseased fish and crops.
Maddeningly, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan accepted the Chevron charges (through its no doubt $1000 an hour attorneys) that Donziger — who had sunk a small fortune into the case, working along with an activist pro bono Ecuadorean attorney — had engaged in “illegal and wrongful” conduct. In short, if one can appreciate the breathtaking hypocrisy, high-powered Chevron attorneys were accusing Donziger of practicing aggressive law.
The only “illegal and wrongful” conduct that appears to be readily apparent is Chevron’s continued willful negligence in causing pollution, illness, and death to go unremediated in Ecuador.
Ironically — but par for the course for the 1% and especially the fossil fuel industry — Chevron was betting on political corruption when it went along with the original 2003 case being pursued in Ecuador. Chevron might have originally preferred the charges to be heard in a Texas federal court, which would have likely been a sympathetic venue for the oil giant. But at the time of the filing of the case, Ecuador had a US Milton Friedman economic puppet running the nation and Chevron bet that he wouldn’t let the Ecuadorean courts rule against a US oil company.
However, as Chevron dragged the case out — stalling tactics are par for the course with oil companies, as also exemplified in the Exxon Valdez litigation — Ecuadoreans elected a more populist president, Rafael Correa, who was sympathetic to the plight of the residents of Lago Agrio — and less receptive to the alleged bribes and financial clout of Big Oil. Suddenly, Chevron was pleading its case in a court system that now had less of a built in bias toward US corporations. The Ecuadorean legal process had tilted unexpectedly toward justice for the impoverished with demonstrable grievances.
As a result, Chevron gambled with the venue of the case and lost. In the end though, for global corporations that is not the end, it just necessitates kicking the case down the field and moving to another venue. As happens in the vast majority of such corporate manipulations of the law, it worked.
Han Shan, U.S. spokesman for the Lago Agrio Plaintiffs in Ecuador, responded to the overturning of the judgment:
While the Ecuadoreans respect the rule of law in all countries, they do not accept this court’s jurisdiction nor this ruling. The affected communities long ago gave up hope that a U.S. court would provide them relief from Chevron’s contamination, which has taken their loved ones, poisoned their lands, and imperiled their cultures.
Shan promised that the lawsuit would continue to be pursued in other national courts where Chevron conducts business. However, the odds of success — due to international legal precedent — are daunting.
Shan said the Ecuadorean natives were “out-gunned on a profound level” against the oil company.
Ultimately, it is justice itself that was out-gunned.