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The Federal Court Case

The original complaint in Bowoto v. Chevron was filed in federal court in San Francisco in May 1999 by four victims of the attack on the Parabe platform demonstration: Larry Bowoto, who was shot several times but survived the attack; the family of Arolika Irowarinun, who was shot and killed; Bola Oyinbo, who was detained and severely tortured; and Bassey Jeje, who was also attacked and injured by the security forces. (Claims concerning a subsequent attack on the villages of Opia and Ikenyan were added later in the case, but the Opia and Ikenyan plaintiffs have elected not to pursue those claims, and they are no longer part of the case. Any references in past documents to the Opia and Ikenyan incidents are no longer operative in this case.)

The plaintiffs’ claims asserted violations of international law under the federal Alien Tort Statute (or Alien Tort Claims Act), as well as violations of domestic law such as assault and battery. In June of 2000, the federal judge denied Chevron’s initial motion to dismiss the case. The discovery phase of the case then proceeded in two steps, with Chevron first arguing that there was insufficient evidence to show that the parent corporations (including Chevron Corporation itself) were involved in the operations of their Nigerian subsidiary (Chevron Nigeria Limited).

In a landmark opinion in 2004, Judge Susan Illston found that Chevron could be held liable for events in Nigeria based on several different legal theories: that the Nigerian subsidiary was Chevron’s agent, that Chevron ratified the Nigerian events by participating in a cover-up, that Chevron conspired with its Nigerian subsidiary, and that Chevron aided and abetted the conduct of its Nigerian subsidiary.

In the second step, Chevron argued that there was insufficient evidence that Chevron Nigeria Limited was involved in any human rights abuses.  In a 2007 opinion, Judge Illston rejected this argument, finding that there was evidence that the oil company had used the Nigerian security forces as its agent, had conspired with the military, and had aided and abetted the human rights abuses.  In particular, the judge found that there was evidence that Chevron had brought the security forces to the Parabe platform “even though the protestors had already agreed to leave,” and that Chevron personnel “closely supervised” those security forces.  In a separate opinion, the judge also rejected Chevron’s argument that this case interferes with U.S. foreign policy or Nigerian sovereignty under the “act of state” doctrine.  Finally, in a third opinion, the judge rejected Chevron’s argument that they could not be held liable for aiding and abetting violations of international law, such as torture and extrajudicial killing, under the Alien Tort Statute.

The 2007 rulings cleared the final obstacles before a jury trial, which is currently scheduled for September 29, 2008.

The California state court case

From the beginning, the plaintiffs asserted claims for violations of California’s unfair business practices law, seeking a court order to stop Chevron’s practices that contribute to human rights abuses in Nigeria.  The federal court found, due to differences between federal and state law, that the unfair business practices claims could not be pursued in federal court.  The plaintiffs re- filed these claims in California state court in 2001, with a new state complaint.  While the federal case focuses on compensation for the victims themselves, the state court case seeks an injunction to change Chevron’s practices.

As it had done in federal court, Chevron made several attempts to dismiss the state court case.  In late 2007 and early 2008, Judge Kevin McCarthy rejected these attempts, issuing several orders that allow the case to proceed to trial.  In the first ruling on the “act of state” doctrine,  Judge McCarthy, like Judge Illston, rejected the argument that the case interferes with foreign policy.  Next, Judge McCarthy issued two orders on the question of injunctive relief, finding that the plaintiffs could seek such relief without a class action and that there was evidence that could support an injunction in this case.  Finally, Judge McCarthy also rejected Chevron’s argument that California’s unfair business practice law could not apply to events in Nigeria.

The state court trial is currently scheduled for September 2009.