Injunction Blocks $18.2B Ruling Against Chevron
MANHATTAN (CN) - U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan granted Chevron an injunction on Monday preventing native Ecuadoreans from collecting $18.2 billion for oil contamination in the Amazon.
Chevron applauded the ruling as restoring "order" to a trial marred by "fraud and corruption," and a spokeswoman for the Ecuadoreans called the decision a "slap in the face" to Ecuadoreans seeking accountability for "the world's worst oil disaster."
In a 131-page ruling, Kaplan recounts the history of oil drilling in Ecuador, the course of decades-long environmental litigation across two continents, the filming of Joseph Berlinger's documentary "Crude" depicting part of that litigation, and how Chevron has used outtakes from that film as proof that the Ecuadoreans' team has tried to extort a judgment.
At the center of the outtakes is Steven Donziger, a New York-based lawyer who spearheaded the Ecuadoreans' lawsuit and solicited various media outlets to show how oil production has ravaged the environment and public health in Ecuador. But Berlinger's documentary, "Crude," captured a bit more, giving audiences an intimate look at the ongoing litigation in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, and Donziger's strategy sessions.
Over the last year, Chevron has conducted discovery in several courts across the country, subpoenaing film clips, documents and e-mails, and deposing Donziger.
Raw footage from "Crude," quoted extensively in Kaplan's latest ruling, show Donziger calling the Ecuadorean courts "utterly weak" and advising another attorney to "intimidate," "pressure" and "humiliate" a judge.
According to one subheading of the ruling (which Kaplan titled "Killing the Judge?"), Donziger said that it would be "good" for a judge to fear he may get killed for ruling against the Ecuadoreans.
Donziger's response to the accusations has remained on point these last few months. His attorney in September, Bruce Kaplan with Friedman Kaplan, said that such "ill-advised remarks" are just examples of "braggadocio from a passionate attorney." Last month, prominent civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel downplayed the comments as "theater."
On Feb. 1, Chevron sued attorney Donziger and several dozen other players in the Ecuadoreans' case for violations of anti-racketeering law. The following week, Kaplan granted Chevron a temporary restraining order against, what was then, a likely verdict for the Ecuadoreans.
A Chevron spokesman hailed Kaplan's ruling granting the injunction as restoring "order" to a trial marred by a "fraud and corruption" of the Ecuadorean judicial system.
"The Lago Agrio plaintiffs' lawyers should not be allowed to benefit from an Ecuadorean judicial system that does not provide due process and from a judgment that they have procured through fraud and corruption," Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said.
Similar manipulation accusations have been hurled at Chevron from the Ecuadoreans' attorneys.
Donziger's new attorneys with Keker & Van Nest filed a memorandum last week accusing Judge Kaplan of bias and of having encouraged Chevron's RICO charges.
Kaplan denied the motion to transfer the case from his docket in a separate decision Monday, writing that the colorful quotations attributed to him as evidence of bias were "selectively quoted and wrenched from context."
But Donziger has not given in, judging from the words of the Ecuadoreans' spokeswoman, who called Kaplan's ruling "a slap in the face" to the people of Ecuador.
"The trampling of due process in the court's refusal to consider key evidence or hold a hearing to determine the facts is an inappropriate exercise of judicial power," spokeswoman Karen Hinton said in a statement. "It also ignores key evidence that Chevron has committed a serious of frauds in Ecuador to cover up its unlawful misconduct."
These fraud allegations are outlined in a new Donziger brief about Diego Borja, whom he labels as a Chevron "operative" hired to discredit the case in Ecuador.
In his third and final ruling on Monday, Kaplan denied Donziger's motion for leave to file new evidence about Borja.
The Ecuadoreans' spokeswoman added that the rulings would be appealed on "multiple grounds," and the American injunction would not prevent collection efforts outside the United States.
"We want to emphasize that after appeals in Ecuador, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs retain their full right to lawfully enforce the judgment of their own country's courts in any of the dozens of nations around the world where Chevron has assets," Hinton wrote.
If Chevron prevails in its sole outstanding motion, Donziger may be forced to seek new counsel to file on his behalf.
Kaplan has not yet ruled on Chevron's March 4 motion to remove San Francisco-based attorney John Keker from representing Donziger.