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Larry Bowoto et al. v. Chevron Corporation et al.

Court United States District Court for the Northern District of California, United States
Case number C 99-02506-SI
Decision title Order Granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgement on Plaintiffs’ Crimes Against Humanity Claim
Decision date 14 August 2007
  • Larry Bowoto
  • Bola Oyinbo
  • Bassey Jeje
  • Sunday Johnbull Irowaninu
  • Chevron Corporation
  • Moes 1-500
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords civilian population, crimes against humanity, deprivation of liberty, execution, inhuman treatment, torture, unnecessary suffering, violence to life, violence to person
Other countries involved
  • Nigeria
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The case arose as a result of three brutal firearm attacks upon unarmed protesters and innocent citizens in Nigeria between May 1998 and January 1999. The plaintiffs allege that in each instance, the Chevron Corporation acted in concert with the Nigerian military and police to plan, order and execute the attacks including through the participation of Chevron security personnel and equipment, the payment of funds to the military and police, and the purchase of equipment and materials including ammunition. The plaintiffs were either summarily executed, seriously injured, burned in a fire set during the attack or tortured by the military and police thereafter. Such acts were intended to force the plaintiffs to cease their protests against Chevron’s damage to the lands and the plaintiffs’ livelihood and discourage any further behaviour.

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Procedural history

In 1999, the plaintiffs filed a class action against Chevron Corporation, multinational petroleum company alleging gross violations of human rights, including summary execution, torture, unlawful arrest and detention.

On 7 April 2000, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

The defendants brought a motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claim for crimes against humanity.

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Related developments

The case proceeded to trial by jury. On 1 December 2008, the jury decided that Chevron was not liable.

On 30 May 2008, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order in which it summarily dismissed the remaining federal law claims against Chevron under the Alien Tort Statute for summary execution, deprivation of the rights to life, liberty and security of person and peaceful assembly and association, and consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.

On 2 February 2009, Chevron sued the plaintiffs to recover the costs of the litigation.

On 4 March 2009, the plaintiffs’ motion seeking a retrial of the case was denied.

The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit seeking a new trial on the grounds that the jury was improperly instructed as to the correct legal test.

By a decision of 10 September 2010, the Court of Appeals upheld the 2008 jury decision clearing Chevron of wrongdoing. On 23 April 2012, the United States Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ final appeal against the jury verdict (see B. Egelko, 'Supreme Court Clears Chevron in Nigeria Deaths', SFGate, 24 April 2012).

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Legally relevant facts

Chevron is the operator of a joint project with the Nigerian government for petroleum development and export in the Niger Delta (para. 25).

Chevron’s activities have contaminated the local water supply and caused other significant environmental damage. In response, the communities in the area organised peaceful protests (paras. 29-30).

The plaintiffs allege that on two occasions between December 1998 and January 1999, peaceful protests were arranged in front of Chevron’s facilities (paras. 32, 43). Chevron called in the support of the Nigerian military and/or police to intervene at the protest sites. They proceeded to open fire on the unarmed protesters killing several persons and grievously injuring countless others (paras. 35-36, 43). Some of the protesters were captured and detained by the Nigerian military and/or police and repeatedly tortured (para. 41).

As a preventive measure with a view to repressing further protests, in early January 1999, military amd police forces paid by Chevrown ransaked kaiama village where over a period of several days they proceeded to pillage and burn the houses, beat the residents and kill those attempting to flee (para. 44).

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Core legal questions

  • Are US courts entitled to exercise jurisdiction over claims of alleged violations of crimes against humanity on the basis of the Alien Tort Statute?
  • What are the contextual elements for crimes against humanity and are the defendants in a position to meet it?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Alien Tort Claims Statute, Section 1350 of Title 28 of the US Code.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Alien Tort Statute gives non-US nationals a federal cause of action for violations of international law provided that: (1) a non-US citizen sues (2) for a tort (3) committed in violation of international law. The violation of international law must be a violation of a definite and accepted norm (p. 3).

That the precise definition of a crime against humanity claim differs between courts does not mean that it is not defined with sufficient specificity to constitute a federal cause of action, as confirmed by earlier case law (p. 4).

Citing the case law of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Court held that the act underlying a crime against humanity claim must be part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population. Widespread referring to the large scale nature of the attack; systematic referring to the organised nature of the acts and the improbability of their random occurrence (p. 5).

The Court concluded, on the basis of evidence presented by the plaintiffs (pp. 11-13) that the pattern of violent repression of civilian oil protesters by the Nigerian Government Security Forces did not constitute a widespread or systematic attack directed at a civilian population. The number of victims in relation to the size of the overall population, the basis upon which the victims were targeted and the degree of acts justified this conclusion (pp. 13-15).

The Court therefore summarily dismissed the plaintiffs’ crimes against humanity claim (p. 16).

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials

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