Villagers-turned-plaintiffs came away completely empty-handed Monday as the seven-man, two-woman jury denied all of their claims, including those for torture and wrongful death. The case was one of the first brought in an American court under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
As Judge Susan Illston's clerk read through the 22-page verdict form, lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto hung his head, as did his co-litigants. Chevron executives and their lawyers, led by Jones Day partner Robert Mittelstaedt, betrayed no emotion at all in the courtroom, but were smiling on their way to their cars.
The case represented a significant investment for Los Angeles plaintiff firm Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick. While partner Dan Stormer declined to specify how many hours have gone into the case, he did say two of his firm's 13 lawyers worked on the matter close to full time, with help from additional attorneys.
The role of a civil rights attorney is not to play it safe, Stormer said. "If we did not take cases like this, we would not be doing our job," he added.
In 1998, villagers from the Ilaje tribe sailed out to the Parabe oil platform off the coast of Nigeria to carry out what they claim was a peaceful protest. However, Chevron argued that the villagers planned to take hostages. Thus the company believes it was justified in calling the Nigerian military, which landed on the platform and started shooting. Several villagers were killed or wounded.
Plaintiffs tried to convince jurors that the military acted as an agent of Chevron, and that the company should be liable for its actions. Outside court, company spokesman Don Campbell said Chevron "sympathizes with the plight" of Nigerian villagers but doesn't "think violence is the way to solve their problems."
Stormer had to listen to the verdict over the phone, as he did not expect a decision Monday and was still in Southern California. One of his co-counsel, Bert Voorhees of Traber & Voorhees, said an issue that could be raised on appeal is Judge Illston's decision to allow evidence that some of the villagers took over a tugboat after the military arrived on the platform and forced the operator to take them to shore. The plaintiff lawyer acknowledged that the jury's precise reasoning is still unclear. They could have agreed with Chevron that the villagers in fact engaged in a hostage-taking, or they could have found that Chevron cannot be held liable for its African subsidiary.
After rendering their verdict, jurors avoided a gauntlet of lawyers waiting at the public elevators. Reached later at home, foreperson Rowena Luca declined to comment to The Recorder.
Stormer hopes that a parallel state court proceeding, before San Francisco Judge Harold Kahn, will turn out differently. Plaintiffs there seek injunctive relief against future abuses by Chevron. The case is currently set for trial in September 2009, Stormer said.