Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Human life, human rights are the losers in unraveling Chevron-Ecuador litigation

Crude contaminates an open toxic pool in the the Ecuadorean Amazon
rainforest near Lago Agrio.  Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest
Action Network, CC BY-NC 2.0.
[UPDATE, May 24, 2019: SDNY Judge Kaplan yesterday held Donziger in civil contempt.  Read more from Michael I. Krauss at Forbes.]
 
Court rulings are stacking up against the plaintiffs in the global Chevron-Ecuador litigation.  About a month ago, the Dutch Supreme Court, affirming arbitral orders, refused enforcement of the $9.5bn judgment that Ecuadorean courts entered against Chevron, successor to Texaco, for oil pollution at Lago Agrio, feeding into the Amazon River (e.g., AP).  Plaintiffs’ appeals have fared poorly since Canadian courts rejected enforcement earlier in April (e.g., Reuters), piling on adverse outcomes in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina.

Now an opinion headline in Oakland News Now—if atop a column authored by a self-professed “influencer” who decidedly favors Chevron—trumpets that plaintiffs’ attorney “Steven Donziger, … Once The Toast Of Hollywood, Is Now Simply Toast.”  Notwithstanding that dry, I mean wry, assessment, it is true that Donziger was ordered in March 2018 to reimburse Chevron for more than $800,000 in legal fees as part of equitable relief in a private RICO action in the Second Circuit, and subsequently he was pressed to defend his bar license.  He maintains that he and his allies are being victimized in a political-hit orchestrated by Big Oil.

If you’re new to the Chevron-Ecuador case, beware the rabbit hole.  It’s almost impossible to summarize how we’ve come to this point in the course of a quarter century.  The quickly dated 2015 book Law of the Jungle by Paul M. Barrett is still an excellent and objective port of entry (Amazon).  (My co-instructor/spouse and I plan to assign it in our comparative law class in the fall semester.)  You also can read about the case through the columns of George Mason Law Professor Michael I. Krauss at Forbes; he’s followed developments closely over the years.

In short, there was some awful pollution in remote oil fields in Ecuador, reckless extraction and vacant regulation in the 1970s and 1980s wreaking devastating, long-term, far-reaching, and literally downstream consequences to human life and the environment.  That part is hardly in dispute.  What has been less clear and is hotly contested is whom should be blamed.

Enter the polarizing personality of Donziger, Harvard Law ’91, who, it must be said, is a genius for having designed a new model of global environmental litigation.  He solicited wealthy and famous, like, Sting famous, investors to raise money for the high costs of litigating against transnational Big Oil behemoths in an effort to tame them with the rule of domestic law.  At what point Donziger’s litigation lost the moral high ground—somewhere between the get-go and never—is the subject of much speculation.  However, that corruption was rampant in Ecuadorean courts is beyond dispute, and the role of the lawyer when justice might require, say, cash prepayment of a new “court fee,” raises some thorny questions in ethics and cultural relativism.  What is for sure is that when you start talking about Big Oil as occupying the moral high ground, something already has gone terribly wrong.

One can only make an informed guess about where liability for Lago Agrio should land.  Texaco/Chevron probably bears a slice of moral, if not legal, responsibility, at least in a strict-liability, “Superfund” sense.  But through an unascertainable and poisonous mix of lax regulation, corruption, foolhardy assumption of responsibility, and their own recklessness practices, the state of Ecuador and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in oil extraction were vastly enriched and probably bear principal responsibility for the disaster, morally and legally.  Arguable then is how thoroughly moral responsibility should flow back to the industrialized world along the pipeline of oil demand; I won’t step into those inky depths.

Donziger and the Ecuador litigation is a capstone course for law school, so I’m not here to state a thorough explication.  I mention the case because it strikes me that it exemplifies two serious problems in contemporary tort law, intersecting on this unusual tangent.

The first problem is that both state actors and transnational corporations operate above domestic law and without accountability to private claimants in international law, and that portends a disastrous end to life on earth.  What ought not be forgotten about the Chevron-Ecuador legal fiasco is that underneath all of the legal finger-pointing, there remains an unmitigated environmental catastrophe.  And what’s worse, it’s ongoing.  Ecuadorean operations in the area still use reckless extraction processes such as unlined oil pits, and Big Oil is bidding to reclaim a piece of the action.  People are still being poisoned, and the Amazon is still being polluted.

Meanwhile, follow the oil downstream, and Hasan Minhaj will show you (embedded below) how Brazil is newly doubling down on rain forest destruction.  I’m talking about the good old-fashioned, small-animals-fleeing-for-their-lives-from-set-fires-and-bulldozers kind of destruction that was the stuff of my childhood nightmares in the dark age before we recycled.  Human civilization and our rule of law on earth have not yet figured a way to attack this problem on the international level, much less to protect the human rights of local citizens within an offending country.  Our own alien tort statute was recently defanged vis-à-vis transnational corporations—in a case about Big Oil, by the way—and it’s not clear that the law’s landmark 1980 application in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, bringing a foreign state torturer to justice, would even be upheld in federal court today.


The second problem is that in places where we do observe the rule of law, namely, here in the United States, legal transaction costs have spiraled so high that our courts have become available only as playgrounds for the rich and powerful, whether to settle disputes among themselves, subsidized by us, or to quash the claims that we, the little people, might dare to file in our puny arrogance.  We know this problem on the mundane, ground level as “access to justice.”  I suggest that this is the same problem that Donziger—giving him the benefit of the doubt at the get-go, for the moment, assuming reasonably that his multitude of motives must at least have included compassion for victims of pollution among the world’s poorest people—was up against in trying to take on Big Oil.  Documents in the RICO case contain tidbits about Donziger’s financing, such as a rock star’s “two equity positions in the case, one for 0.076 percent and 0.025 percent.”  It turns my stomach to read about human rights litigation as an investment opportunity, perhaps ripe for an initial public offering.  (“Call now for your free report; first time callers can get a free tenth-ounce Silver Walking Liberty Coin!”)  If that’s how we’re setting legal norms around human rights and deterring threats to human life, then that says more about us than it does about Steven Donziger.

These are the days that I want to give up on the human experiment and hunker down in willful ignorance to marshal my resources and plan for a contented retirement.

Though I’m a little short on resources.  Can I still buy shares in that Roundup litigation?

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