Jury clears Chevron of charges in Nigeria clash

SAN FRANCISCO Mon Dec 1, 2008 7:23pm EST

A Chevron tanker truck unloads gasoline into underground storage tanks in Burbank, Calfiornia, June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

A Chevron tanker truck unloads gasoline into underground storage tanks in Burbank, Calfiornia, June 18, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. jury on Monday cleared Chevron Corp (CVX.N) of liability charges arising from a violent clash on one of its oil platforms off the coast of Nigeria a decade ago.

The charges stemmed from May 1998 when about 100 local villagers, protesting environmental damage and demanding compensation and jobs, staged a three-day occupation of Chevron's Parabe platform, nine miles off the coast.

The lawsuit, watched closely by multinational companies facing similar challenges in resource-rich countries, was brought by Larry Bowoto, a protester who was injured when Nigerian forces landed on Parabe to retake the platform.

After the month-long trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the jury rejected claims that Chevron was liable for torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, assault, battery and negligence.

Speaking outside the courtroom, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers said they would look at the possibility of appeal.

The case was brought against San Ramon, California-based Chevron under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that dates back to 1789 and allows foreigners to sue over human rights abuses committed by or on behalf of U.S. organizations.

A landmark decision a decade ago found another California oil company, Unocal Corp, could be sued in a U.S. court for its alleged role in human rights abuses in Myanmar. Unocal settled in 2005, just weeks before agreeing to be bought by Chevron.

"The fact that Bowoto v. Chevron made it this far in the process is a victory in and of itself, because it means that we have demonstrated that there is a clear pathway in the U.S. court system for holding corporations accountable to the rule of law," Laura Livoti, founder of Justice in Nigeria Now, said in a statement.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L) faces a similar trial in New York early next year on charges of human rights violations and racketeering in Nigeria.

Hostage-taking is a regular hazard for oil companies working in the Niger Delta, where impoverished villagers complain they see no benefit from the industry.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs had argued that the forces who landed on Parabe were paid by Chevron. But the company countered that Nigerian forces were the only security option there, and giving them extra money and food and shelter in return was normal in the industry.

"While we sympathize with the challenges the people of the Niger Delta face every day, those challenges do not merit violence and hostage taking for ransom," Chevron spokesman Don Campbell said.

(Additional reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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