Federal Court House, San Francisco. Grey skies and a crisp autumn wind for the first day of trial.
The session began with Judge Illston hearing motions from counsel.
Chevron’s recent advertising campaign was a major issue: Chevron’s “Human Energy” slogan has been popping up on coffee-cup sleeves and billboards throughout the country, and certainly around the Bay Area. Attorneys for the plaintiff asked the court to enjoin Chevron from buying advertising that could have a prejudicial effect on the case.
There’s a bit of a logical leap though—the ads in question refer to energy conservation and alternative fuel, so it isn’t obvious how they bear directly on the case at hand.
However, a second Chevron ad did draw censure: Chevron has sponsored links on Google and Yahoo so that their fact sheet is the first hit in related searches of “Bowoto v. Chevron.” Counsel for the defense argued that the sponsored links were an attempt by Chevron to ‘even the playing field’, since 9 out the 10 first hits were for sites supporting the plaintiffs. Of those 10 links, only Chevron’s was sponsored.
Judge Illston ordered Chevron to take down the sponsored link, and–at the behest of the defense–ordered all attorneys to refrain from making public statements and from appearing at rallies or demonstrations. She did not address the matter of Chevron’s advertising campaign in San Francisco, although the issue did come up during voir dire.
Statement of the Case
Judge Illston then read statements of the case from both sides.
The plaintiffs reiterated their account of the incident on Parabe platform–the four plaintiffs were among a peaceful group of villagers demonstrating for negotiations over environmental degradation and jobs, when Nigerian armed forces in Chevron’s pay attacked the unarmed demonstrators.
The defense stated that the Ilaje villagers had taken the platform workers hostage and demanding money from Chevron and that Chevron had the duty and right to notify Nigerian authorities, secure the safety of their workers and transport security to the site. Defense also maintained that the Nigerian security forces acted within reason on the platform, and that Chevron cannot be liable for any abuses occurring during the plaintiffs’ detention following the incident.
The plaintiffs insisted that Chevron was liable for the conduct of the security forces, since they were acting as the hired agents of Chevron Nigeria.
The defense claimed that neither Chevron Nigeria, nor the defendants–Chevron Corporation, Chevron Investment Inc., Chevron USA, Inc.–were liable since the security forces were acting as legitimate law enforcement agents, and because Chevron Nigeria intended a peaceful resolution to the incident.
The rest of the day was spent on jury selection.
Once a jury was seated, counsel offered another round of motions before tomorrow’s opening statements.
The plaintiffs sought to exclude mention of events occurring after the incidents of May 28th, 1998. Judge Illston ruled that neither side may discuss post-incident events in their opening statements without permission of the court.
This decision prompted an extended debate on what exactly were the time parameters of the events. The plaintiffs insist that the “incident” refer to the tortious conduct inflicted on the four men: the Parabe platform shootings and the subsequent detention and abuse.
The defense argued that the incident should consist of the entire planned sequence of events. Defense seemed to score one point in noting that the plaintiffs included in their time-frame a prolonged 30-day detention, which would seem to cancel out the argument that the relevant events ended with the shooting.
Judge Illston ruled that the discussion of ‘post-incident’ events would only be permitted at her discretion.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear opening arguments.