A jury sitting before a federal court in San Francisco yesterday found in favour of the international oil conglomerate Chevron in a case relating to a ten year old incident at one of Chevron’s oil platforms off the Nigerian coast. During a standoff between local villagers from the Ilaje tribe and Nigerian government soldiers, during the occupation of a Chevron oil barge, Chevron called in support from the Nigerian authorities. During the three-day long confrontation several activists were killed and injured. The villagers argued that Chevron was responsible for the action of the Nigerian authorities and that they only carried out peaceful protests onboard the barge, while Chevron claimed that the activists had taken its workers hostage while threatening to loot and attack troops. The lawsuit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) allowing for US jurisdiction for a tort “in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”. The number of cases filed in US courts under the ATCA has increased significantly over the last decade.
While the precise reasoning of the jury is not yet clear, it remains evident that this is not the end of it for Chevron. The plaintiff’s lawyer has already disclosed that he is expecting an appeal and Chevron is simultaneously subject to another lawsuit, also in California, relating to other practices in Nigeria. What is clear, however, is that the Niger Delta remains one of the most dangerous places for international corporations to operate in highlighting the need for such corporations to take precautionary measures and secure contingency planning in order to avoid kidnappings. At the same time, it is equally clear that focus among international lawyers and academics on the role of international corporations and their possible complicity in human rights violations is steadily increasing and likely to remain a focal point. Rightly so.
This is the second ATCA case, which went to a jury trial in United States. It is also the second ACTA case which did not succeed before the jury. It has to be noted that these cases are highly complex both as to their factual and legal dimensions. A large number of ACTA claims against corporations are still pending before federal courts in United States.