Bowoto v. Chevron Goes to Trial

by Roger Alford

One of the most important Alien Tort Statute cases has begun in California that will test the scope of corporate liability under international law. The facts are hotly disputed but either version is truly bizarre. Over 100 Nigerians seize a Chevron oil platform on May 25, 1998. Plaintiffs argue that it was a peaceful nonviolent act of civil disobedience. The Defendants argue that Chevron employees were being held hostage and some of the hijackers engaged in violence against employees. After a three day standoff, Chevron called the Nigerian Government Security Forces. The Nigerian military retake the platform and allegedly engage in various human rights violations against Bowoto and other protesters.

Bowoto sued Chevron under the ATS alleging, among other things, that Chevron through its subsidiary Chevron Nigerian Ltd., aided and abetted human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military authorities, including torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. The attacks by the Nigerian authorities allegedly were with Chevron-leased helicopters and with the cooperation of a Chevron-crisis management team. Chevron alleges that it requested the Nigerian authorities to conduct the hostage rescue mission in a peaceful manner. The only protesters who were killed allegedly were attacking the military.

After numerous legal challenges a federal court in the Northern District of California dismissed all claims except for a few ATS claims. Obviously the case is fact intensive, and whether violations of international law occurred will depend on the jury’s factual determinations. According to one version, a corporation through its surrogate aided and abetted the death, torture, and inhumane treatment of innocent, peaceful protesters by military personnel acting in concert with Chevron employees. According to another version, the facts establish that a company simply reported criminal conduct where it was doing business and was seeking assistance from the government to help rescue its workers who were being held hostage.

It’s rare for ATS cases to get this far. I will try to update you as I hear of developments.

3 Responses

  1. This is definitely interesting…. looking forward to the updates. 

  2. I just don’t think the courts are going to buy the gigantic stretch in liability necessary for the plaintiffs to succeed.

    That’s even ignoring the issue of witness reliability… already significant numbers of the charges were dropped due to fraud.

  3. Matt,

    I tend to agree with you.  This seems like the kind of case that would be extraordinarily difficult for plaintiffs to win.  Even if the government did engage in human rights violations, there still has to be the independent factual finding that Chevron knowingly and actively assisted in the misconduct. 


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