SAN FRANCISO (CN) – A federal judge tossed the bulk of Chevron’s malicious prosecution claims against a Massachusetts attorney who represented Ecuadorians in an environmental pollution lawsuit. The only claim to survive accuses the lawyer of pursuing the case despite knowing that one of his clients did not have breast cancer.
Cristobal Bonifaz and his firm represented Ecuadorians in a lawsuit accusing Texaco, a Chevron affiliate, of contaminating Amazon rain forests while searching and drilling for oil. The plaintiffs allegedly got cancer from living in areas contaminated by petroleum.
Chevron claimed that Bonifaz filed the lawsuit as part of an extortion scheme. After being dropped as the lawyer in a similar suit filed in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, he sued in the United States “as a threat to the money and political power” that the Lago Agrio plaintiffs would gain, Chevron claimed.
Bonifaz asked U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to strike Chevron’s malicious prosecution claims, saying they violated California anti-SLAPP law, which bars strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Wilken largely granted the motion, but allowed a single claim to proceed: that Bonifaz knew one of his clients, Luisa Maribel Jame Gonzales, did not have breast cancer, but pursued her claim, anyway.
Bonifaz acknowledged that Jame had told his co-counsel that she did not have cancer, but he insisted that he still had probable cause to pursue her claims.
The judge disagreed, saying the admission “demonstrates that Chevron’s action could have some merit.”
“If Bonifaz knew that Ms. Jame did not actually have cancer, he would have lacked
probable cause to continue Ms. Jame’s suit,” Wilken wrote.
“His substantial role in the litigation and the significance of Ms. Jame’s admission warrant affording Chevron the opportunity to conduct discovery on whether Bonifaz knew of Ms. Jame’s statement to [co-counsel].”
Chevron otherwise failed to prove that Bonifaz filed the lawsuit maliciously, the judge concluded.