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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 09-15641
Decision title Opinion
Decision date 10 September 2010
  • Larry Bowoto
  • Bassey Jeje
  • Ola Oyinbo
  • Bayo Oyinbo
  • Deji Oyinbo
  • Margaret Irowarinun
  • Roseline Irowarinun
  • Mary Irowarinun
  • Bosuwo Sebi Irowarinun
  • Caleb Irowarinun
  • Orioye Laltu Irowarinun
  • Temilola Irowarinun
  • Adegorye Olorutimjehum Irowarinun
  • Aminora James Irowarinun
  • Eniesoro Irowarinun
  • Gbenga Irowarinun
  • Ibimisan Irowarinun
  • Monotutegha Irowarinun
  • Olamisbode Irowarinun
  • Chevron Corporation
  • Chevron Investments Inc.
  • Chevron USA Inc.
Categories Human rights violations
Keywords 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.

The first case of its kind to be decided by a jury trial, Bowoto v. Chevron Corporation was decided in favour of Chevron, clearing them of all liability. The present decision is an appeal by the plaintiffs, which was ultimately unsuccessful as the Court of Appeals upheld the judgement of the District Court. 

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Procedural history

In 1999, the plaintiffs filed a class action against Chevron Corporation,a a 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. On 13 August 2007, the District Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for crimes against humanity on the grounds that the contextual elements were not met. 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.

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Related developments

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 an oil exporting and excavating company whose Nigerian subsidiary, Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL), operates in the Niger Delta.

On 25 May 1998, over 100 native Nigerians took over the Parabe oil platform nine miles off the coast of Nigeria to protest CNL’s destruction of the environment and their refusal to provide jobs to the local population.

After the fourth day of the protest, CNL sought the assistance of the Nigerian Government Security Forces (GSF) to end the protest. Upon arrival, the GSF soldiers shot a number of the protesters, killing two of them (pp. 3-4, 7-8).

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Core legal questions

  • Is the Torture Victim Protection Act applicable to acts of torture allegedly committed by corporations?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Torture Victim Protection Act.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Torture Victim Protection Act was passed in order to establish a civil action for recovery of damages from an individual who engages in torture or extra-judicial killing. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Act does not permit such civil actions against corporations (p. 15). It reached this conclusion based on (1) the textual interpretation of the language of the statute, which provides for the liability of “individuals” (pp. 15-18) and (2) the drafting history of the statute, which never mentions corporate liability (pp. 18-19).

The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that corporations may be sued under the Act where they have aided and abetted individuals to commit torture on the grounds that the Act does not contemplate such a theory of liability (p. 19).

The judgment of the District Court was upheld (p. 25). 

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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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