By Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
16 August 2007
Nigerian villagers can go to trial in San Francisco in a lawsuit that seeks to hold Chevron Corp. responsible for military attacks that killed and wounded protesters at oil company facilities in 1998 and 1999, a federal judge has ruled.
In a series of decisions Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston narrowed the lawsuit against Chevron but said a jury could consider the gist of the villagers' claims - that the oil giant summoned troops to the protests, directed their actions and should be held accountable for the injuries and deaths of peaceful demonstrators.
"This is a major victory," plaintiffs' lawyer Barbara Hadsell said Wednesday. "It's an affirmation of holding corporations accountable here for their conduct abroad. If they make the profit there, they have to pay the consequences if things go bad."
Chevron said in a statement that it is confident a jury will "reject this ultimate Nigerian scam."
The San Ramon company also said the evidence would show that the protesters had been violent, had taken hostages and attacked police who tried to rescue the captives.
"While we regret the loss of lives associated with the hostage-taking, the claim that any Chevron company intended for the Nigerian law enforcement personnel to harm anyone is beyond far-fetched," the statement said.
The suit was filed by nine Nigerians on behalf of themselves or relatives who were shot during the protests.
In the first incident, in May 1998, military police opened fire on a Chevron Nigeria offshore oil rig that had been occupied by more than 100 people protesting the company's practices, which they said had polluted their land and water and denied employment to their people. Two people were killed and two were wounded, according to the suit, and others were arrested and beaten.
The plaintiffs said Chevron had summoned government forces to the scene, supplied their helicopters and supervised their actions. Chevron said it had sought government help to free its workers but had requested that the rescue be handled peacefully.
The other attacks took place in January 1999 in villages near oil facilities where residents had protested pollution. The plaintiffs said government troops, using a helicopter and boats supplied by Chevron, killed at least four unarmed people and burned two villages to the ground.
Chevron said one employee had reported an attack by armed villagers on government forces. The company acknowledged supplying helicopters to the military in response to the report but said it had no involvement in the shootings or burnings.
Illston did not resolve the factual disputes but said the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to allow a jury to decide whether the company was responsible for the military actions.
For example, she said, there was evidence that Chevron had paid the security forces and provided transportation, and had known of their "general history of committing abuses." There was also evidence the company had supervised the forces that landed on the oil platform in 1998, the judge said.
Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary and the government troops "had a much closer relationship than the traditional relationship between private parties and law enforcement officials in this country," Illston said. "The (security forces) were on the (Chevron) payroll, and engaged in extensive security work. ... (Chevron) did not simply 'dial 911.' "