Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where do you sue a big oil company? Ecuador.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 6:24 PM

The film CRUDE ran at Zeitgeist last year. (I previewed it here.) It chronicled a then unresolved lawsuit — a complicated 16 year affair in which lawyers representing various indigenous Ecuadorean groups living in a rainforest area polluted by oil drilling pursued a multi-billion dollar suit against Chevron, which had purchased Texaco, a primary partner in the original polluting. The suit was extremely complicated because of international law, the involvement of an Ecuadorean oil company, and just the sheer scope of the case. It was the ultimate David versus Goliath case, particularly because Chevron had the means to perpetually drag out the case and lobby at the international level for changes affecting the trial. The whole scenario looked rather bleak for the Ecuadorean people who had suffered severe health problems due to the pollution of their water. (And that was before Sting and his wife showed up in the end of the film to help drum up publicity for the damage to the rainforest.) Well, the case was just resolved and astonishingly in favor of the plaintiffs. The Ecuadorean judge ordered Chevron to pay $8.6 billion dollars and apologize. This doesn't actually mean the matter is settled. This New York Times story has details on how Chevron can appeal to American judges to intervene in certain aspects of the decision.

(The documentary itself came up in the trial. And both sides repeatedly accused the other of manipulating the judges and trial.)

It's worth noting that the Chevron case took 17 years to reach a conclusion. Sounds pretty bad, but the Exxon-Mobile case from the Exxon Valdez spill took 20 years to get to the Supreme Court. And in the end, the Supreme Court lowered the punitive damages from the appeals court's $2.5 billion to $500 million. Exxon's argument was that it had already spent enough ($3.4 billion it said) cleaning up the mess. Some industries, including some fisheries, never recovered.

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