Bowoto v. Chevron: Appellate Court Upholds Jury Verdict

On September 10, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict in favor of Chevron Corporation (.pdf) in a case involving plaintiff allegations that Chevron was complicit in human rights abuses committed by Nigerian security forces in 1998.  Plaintiffs brought claims under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (“TVPA”).

The primary events at issue in the litigation took place at an offshore platform belonging to Chevron’s Nigerian subsidiary.  After protesters spent several days at the platform in May 1998 protesting Chevron’s drilling activities, Chevron’s Nigerian subsidiary contacted the Nigerian Government Security Forces. The security forces that came to the scene ultimately fired on the protesters, killing two and injuring a number of others.

Plaintiffs originally filed the case in 1999 and almost ten years of litigation preceded the final commencement of trial.  In December 2008, after a seventeen-day trial, a jury in the District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Chevron on all counts.  One of the issues at trial was the nature of the protest activity at the platform.  Plaintiffs alleged that the protesters were unarmed and peaceful, while Chevron witnesses insisted that the protesters were armed and threatened violence against the platform and its crew.  Plaintiffs appealed the jury verdict, raising challenges to the jury instructions and the District Court’s evidentiary rulings.  Plaintiffs also appealed two points of law, including the District Court’s ruling that the TVPA does not apply to corporations.

The Court of Appeals fully affirmed the District Court’s judgment, including the finding that plaintiffs’ ATS claims were preempted by the Death on the High Seas Act.  With regard to the TVPA claims, the Court determined that "the plain language of the TVPA does not allow for suits against a corporation."  This decision conflicts with a 2005 Eleventh Circuit decision in which the TVPA was held, without discussion, as applicable to corporate actors. (Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., 416 F. 3d 1242 (11th Cir. 2005).)  This is a significant issue in part because most cases brought against companies for complicity in human rights abuses committed by public security forces abroad include claims under both the TVPA and the ATS. 

Although Chevron has prevailed in the judgments issued in this case, the length of the litigation and the considerable publicity surrounding it are powerful reminders of the legal and reputational risks that can accrue to companies operating abroad in states with poor human rights practices. Such risks have led Chevron and peer companies to participate in initiatives like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights as a means to identify and manage security force-related risks, as well as to include human rights due diligence processes in their management systems.

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