MANHATTAN (CN) - A cryptic passage from the journal of a lawyer who engineered a $19 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador caught attention from both sides at the opening of a trial to invalidate that award.
While litigating in the Amazon, New York attorney Steven Donziger mused in his notebook that he was on the cusp creating a "new paradigm, of not only a case but how to do a case."
His clients' lawsuit sought billions in damages against Chevron to repair environmental damage and public health issues in the rainforest region of Lago Agrio, where Texaco drilled for decades. Chevron inherited the lawsuit by acquiring Texaco in 2001.
For Chevron's lead attorney Randy Mastro, who prosecuted mob cases in between stints at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the tactics Donziger employed in that trial amounted to "a familiar story of a racketeer targeting a deep pocket on a big score."
Donziger and his colleagues pressured a scientific firm to skew their results, offered the presiding judge with a $500,000 cut of any judgment against Chevron, and then planned to strong-arm a settlement with an international political and public relations campaign, Mastro said in his opening statement Tuesday.
Allowing the Ecuadorean judgment to stand would allow trial lawyers to declare "open season" on major companies operating in "corrupt, foreign jurisdictions," the animated Chevron attorney warned.
He urged U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is hearing the case without a jury, to declare the award illegitimate, thereby helping Chevron fight off collections actions it faces so far in Brazil, Argentina and Canada.
Of those original Ecuadorean plaintiffs, all but two - Hugo Gerardo Camacho and Javier Piaguaje - boycotted Chevron's new round of litigation in New York. The pair are represented by New Jersey-based lawyer Julio Gomez.
Donziger's new attorney Richard Friedman countered that having a New York judge overturn the outcome of court proceedings that took place a continent away and language barrier apart would be a "new paradigm" of its own.
Friedman, of Friedman Rubin in Seattle, noted at the beginning of his statement that Chevron's preference for New York was a dramatic departure from where the case originally began.
Though the Ecuadoreans had initially sued Texaco in Manhattan, Chevron "begged, bargained, and did everything that it could" to bring the lawsuit to Ecuador, he said.
The rainforest residents fought at the time to keep their then-8-year-old lawsuit in New York because they belonged to a "disfavored minority" back at home, Friedman said, comparing their status to blacks in the "South in the 1960s."
Both parties agree that, once Chevron succeeded in moving the case to Ecuador in 2001, Donziger's litigation strategy looked far different from that of a typical U.S. court case.
Friedman compared Donziger's judicial philosophy to those of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who "understood" that "social change" had to accompany legal action.
Fighting the case outside of the courtroom, Donziger's campaign included political lobbying in the United States and Ecuador, celebrity profile from the likes of Sting, and finding financial backers to bankroll the lawsuit in exchange for a portion of a potential judgment. Donziger also brought the case to the attention of "60 Minutes," Vanity Fair and documentary filmmaker Joseph Berlinger. Footage that Berlinger left out of his 2009 film "Crude" depicted Donziger rallying protesters inside a judge's chambers in Lago Agrio.