SUPREME COURT:

Justices bring end to human rights case against Chevron

Story updated at 11:10 EDT on April 24 to add comment from Chevron.

The Supreme Court today formally brought to a close a human rights case brought by Nigerians against Chevron Corp.

The plaintiffs, who had lost a jury trial and a subsequent appeal, had wanted the justices to revive the case but were always facing an uphill battle.

By declining to take up the dispute, Bowoto v. Chevron, the court was acting in accordance to a ruling in a related case, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, decided last week.

The court held 9-0 in that case that the Torture Victim Protection Act applies only to individuals and not organizations, a distinction that excludes corporations from the scope of the law.

The Nigerian plaintiffs filed suit in the Northern District of California in the aftermath of a 1998 protest against the CNL oil company, a joint venture between Chevron and the Nigerian government. After protesters occupied a drilling platform off the coast of Nigeria, Chevron called in the Nigerian security forces. Several protesters were injured and two died as a result of their injuries.

A jury ruled against the plaintiffs on various claims against Chevron, prompting an appeal to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court also ruled in favor of Chevron, including on the key point of whether the Torture Victim Protection Act could apply to corporations.

The Supreme Court's decision not to get involved means that ruling remains intact.

Jonathan Kaufman, an attorney at Earthrights International who represents the plaintiffs, said the outcome means his clients "will now be denied the opportunity to have a U.S. court properly consider their claims."

The ruling in Mohamad was a "disturbing illustration of how the current Supreme Court takes a broad and permissive view of corporate rights but sees fit to immunize companies from the obligations and responsibilities that go with those rights," he added.

In a statement, Chevron said it "takes its role as a responsible operator in Nigeria seriously and is active in many projects promoting health, economic development and education."

Although "significant challenges exist in the Niger Delta," the company "remains committed to solving them through peaceful dialogue and collaborating with all stakeholders," the statement added.

In a related area of the law, the court is currently delving into the scope of the Alien Tort Statute, another law used to sue corporations over alleged human rights abuses.

It is due to rehear the case, Kiobel v. Shell, in the fall after asking the parties to prepare arguments on what kind of nexus to the United States a complaint has to have for U.S. courts to have jurisdiction to hear it (E&ENews PM, March 5).