Chevron’s Ecuador case to be heard by judge, not jury

Chevron Corp. won a request to have a judge rather than a jury decide its case over alleged fraud in an Ecuadorian pollution verdict.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan ruled today that the Ecuadorians and their legal adviser, Steven Donziger, don’t have a constitutional right to a jury trial because the San Ramon, California-based company isn’t seeking damages.

“Defendants argue that they are entitled to a jury as a matter of fairness,” Kaplan said. “But that argument — even if it had merit, which it does not — is beside the point.”

Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil firm, alleges that Donziger and others, in a case over pollution in the Ecuadorian jungle, won a $19 billion verdict against the company by fraud. A trial in the lawsuit is scheduled for Oct. 15.

The trial was initially set to be held in two parts, with damages being sought only against Donziger and his firm and not the Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the environmental suit. Chevron dropped its damages claim against the legal adviser and said it no longer wanted a jury trial.
A jury in a civil case is guaranteed only if the plaintiff is seeking damages, Kaplan wrote. Otherwise, parties must agree to it, he said.

Residents of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio area near the Colombian border have sought damages for about 20 years for pollution in the Amazon rainforest that they allege was caused by Texaco before it was acquired by Chevron.

Chevron denies there was any wrongdoing by it in Ecuador and claims that Texaco cleaned up its share of the pollution at its former oil fields, which were taken over by state-owned PetroEcuador. The U.S. company also said that it was released from future liability by an agreement between Texaco and Ecuador.

The company is seeking to bar the Ecuadorians from enforcing the verdict and disgorgement of any gains they won as a result of the alleged fraud.

The racketeering case is Chevron v. Donziger, 11-cv-00691, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan). The appeals court case is In Re Naranjo, 13-00772, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Manhattan).