Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle (Excellent Account of Chevron Ecuador)

Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle (Excellent Account of Chevron Ecuador)

Paul Barrett gave a talk earlier this week at Temple on his Law of the Jungle. It’s a terrific journalistic account of the epic 20-year battle over Chevron’s pollution of Ecuador’s rain forest.

For anyone with a vague awareness of the case the book supplies a highly readable cheat-sheet. I suspect like many with incidental interests in international law, I had some idea that Chevron (Texaco) did some awful things in Ecuador but also that there was something not-quite-right about the plaintiffs’ side of the equation. Barrett’s account fills out the picture on both sides.

The book is a model biography of a case with epic turns. It’s also in many respects the biography of Steven Donziger, the activist lawyer who made this case different from other suits against US multinationals for misdeeds abroad. Barrett paints a pretty persuasive picture of how Donziger’s hubris ultimately did him in. For starters, Donziger had himself shadowed by a documentary filmmaker, the raw footage of which ended up discoverable along with the rest of his paper trail. Material that would ordinarily have remained protected by attorney-client privilege ends up supplying the backbone to Barrett’s narrative.

That gives the book something of an unbalanced feel — the equivalent from Chevron’s side isn’t part of the record ($400 million in fees to Gibson Dunn!), so Chevron’s litigating maneuvers get much less air time here. Conservatives and the business community will be happy with the result (see this favorable review in the Wall Street Journal, for instance). But although Chevron got itself in trouble in various respects along the way (starting with the oil drilling itself, but also including the strategically disastrous push to have the proceedings transferred to an Ecuadorian court which ultimately delivered an $18 billion judgment in the case), its lawyering was clearly of a more conventional description. There are interesting cameos of Ecuadorian politicians and judges, litigation venture capitalists, and other US lawyers who misguidedly jumped on board even after the veneer of celebrities and good press had started to crack. But it’s Donziger that makes this the exceptional case.

And exceptional for the telling. For any cause lawyer, this is a cautionary tale. Sure, one has to play public interest cases from various angles, in and outside the courtroom (including of course the media, with which Donziger proved masterful until things started falling apart). But there are limits, and Donziger clearly exceeded them on various fronts. Though he may yet survive the RICO judgment entered against him in the SDNY (on appeal, on fairly technical grounds unrelated to the underlying facts), he’ll come out of this with a severely tarnished reputation among progressives as well as more natural adversaries.

I’m not sure that the lessons are generalizable much beyond that. The book closes with thoughts on how US class-action lawyers have overreached in other contexts. I don’t know that Chevron Ecuador necessarily points in that direction. US-style litigation could still take hold on a global basis even as it gets a haircut at home. This case shows that transnational disputes have yet to be adequately institutionalized, with much greater potential to get out of hand in various directions. No one really wins on that terrain.

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Paul Wolf
Paul Wolf

From my experience, Donziger is not unusual among mass tort lawyers. The lack of a real attorney client relationship removes one of the main behavioral controls. As does the reluctance of courts to gag the press, and the fact that most bar counsel would wait until the ligitation ends, which can take decades. Also, many of these cases involve multiple independent plaintiff’s counsel, who have to work together because of MDL transfers. This arrangement also tends to obscure accountability. It’s Chevron’s own fault, though, that the case was heard in the corrupt courts of Ecuador. US defendants always argue for forum non conveniens dismissals, but just look where that can lead to.