June 14, 2010 / 8:26 PM / 10 years ago

Burden of proof at issue in Chevron-Nigeria appeal

* Burden on defense to show troops were right-plaintiffs

* Plaintiffs must show “police” force excessive-defense

By Braden Reddall

SAN FRANCISCO, June 14 (Reuters) - An appeal of a major case brought by Nigerians against Chevron Corp (CVX.N) hinges on where the burden of proof lies: with forces that landed on an occupied oil platform or the occupiers harmed by them.

In late 2008, a jury in federal court cleared the company of liability arising from the clash a decade earlier between Nigerian state forces and protesters on Chevron’s Parabe oil platform, 9 miles (14 km) off Nigeria’s coast.

Theresa Traber, representing the villagers who brought the case against the U.S. oil company, argued before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday that the federal trial court erred by putting the burden of proof on the plaintiffs.

Lawyers for the villagers said Judge Susan Illston set the bar too high in requiring the plaintiffs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Nigerian soldiers acted improperly.

The occupation of Parabe, by about 100 local villagers who were protesting environmental damage and demanding compensation and jobs, ended in a violent clash in May 1998.

Traber said it should be the defense — including Chevron since it fed and housed the soldiers — that should demonstrate the troops acted reasonably when firing on the protesters.

But Craig Stewart, representing Chevron, argued it was a “police” action that broke up the three-day occupation, so it was up to the other side to show “excessive force” was used.

“The burden rests on plaintiffs in that case,” he told the court in San Francisco.

The lawsuit, brought by injured protester Larry Bowoto, was watched closely by multinational companies facing similar challenges in resource-rich countries.

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 key decision a decade earlier 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.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L) faced a similar trial in New York just over a year ago on charges of human rights violations and racketeering in Nigeria, but Shell then settled and agreed to pay $15.5 million to the victims, without admitting or denying any wrongdoing. [ID:nL91002110]

Chevron said the five-week case in late 2008 had given the Bowoto plaintiffs a “full and fair opportunity” to try their case. “We are confident in the strength of our arguments and the integrity of the jury’s decision,” it said in a statement.

The case is “Bowoto v. Chevron Corp” in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 09-15641. (Reporting by Braden Reddall; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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