Civil rights lawyers, who accused Chevron Corp. of human rights abuses in Nigeria for a decade only to lose a jury verdict in December, now accuse the oil giant of trying to scare off future civil rights cases by seeking $485,000 in court costs from the Nigerians.
“Given the extreme poverty of the plaintiffs, of which Chevron is well aware, Chevron certainly cannot be operating under the impression that it will actually recover this huge sum from them,” wrote Cindy Cohn, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, representing the plaintiffs.
“Instead it seems likely that the goal of the cost bill is the chilling effect of imposing substantial costs on future litigants,” she wrote in a letter to Northern District Judge Susan Illston on March 11.
Chevron responded through its attorney Robert Mittelstaedt of Jones Day’s office in San Francisco. “Chevron is exercising its right to seek to recover a portion of the costs it was forced to incur during 10 years of litigation,” he said. “Further comment would be inappropriate while the matter is pending before the court.”
Cohn asked Illston to hear arguments on May 1 over Chevron’s right to claim costs before even beginning to address the issue of how much the company might be entitled to. The case is Bowoto v. Chevron Corp. , C99-2506SI.
“This case qualifies for a denial of discretionary costs,” Cohn said, and pointed to Stanley v. USC , 178 F.3d 1069, a 1999 case in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in which the University of Southern California attempted to recover costs from a female athletic coach who sued the school for alleged sex discrimination.
In the Stanley case, the appeals court held that imposition of “high costs on losing civil rights plaintiffs of modest means may chill civil rights litigation in this area.” The court added, “Without civil rights litigants who are willing to test the boundaries of our laws, we would not have made much of the progress that has occurred in this nation since Brown v. Board of Educ. , 347 U.S. 483 (1954).”
A federal jury on Dec. 1 denied claims that the Nigerian villagers were the victims of torture and wrongful death stemming from a 1998 protest. Ilaje tribal members had sailed to the Parabe oil platform off the coast of Nigeria in what they claim was a peaceful protest. Chevron argued that the villagers had planned to take hostages.
Chevron called in the Nigerian military to resolve the tense situation. Several villagers were killed by the military. The suit alleged that Chevron should be liable for aiding the Nigerian military.
The case was one of the first to go to a jury trial under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 200-year-old law that allows foreigners to seek damages for injuries at the hands of American companies overseas.
Pamela A. MacLean is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York.