Environment

Plaintiffs’ Experts Disavow Work in $19 Billion Chevron Case


Lawyer Steven Donziger, left, walks with his clients from the Siona and Secoya tribe to Federal Court in New York for their hearing in 1999.

Photograph by Adam Nadel/AP Photo

Lawyer Steven Donziger, left, walks with his clients from the Siona and Secoya tribe to Federal Court in New York for their hearing in 1999.

(Updates 7th paragraph with comment from plaintiffs' attorney)

Steven Donziger, once the toast of the environmental plaintiffs’ bar, is in deep trouble.

The New York lawyer made history in February 2011 when he engineered what’s grown into a $19 billion verdict against Chevron (CVX) related to oil pollution in the rainforest of eastern Ecuador.

Chevron, which has no assets to speak of in Ecuador, vowed it would never pay a dime. The oil company has claimed that Donziger masterminded a vast fraud with the assistance of lawyers and judges in Ecuador. Chevron filed a countersuit against Donziger in federal court in New York, alleging he had fabricated evidence, threatened an Ecuadorian judge, and arranged for the ghostwriting of a supposedly independent scientific report, as well as the ultimate judgment.

Donziger, who said he represented some 30,000 indigenous rainforest villagers and farmers, has denied all of the allegations, saying that Chevron simply wanted to deflect attention from its enormous liability.

Now the San Ramon-based company has reached an important settlement with the environmental consulting firm that served as Donziger’s main source of data and analysis in the long-running Ecuador case. Stratus Consulting, based in Boulder, Colo., said in a press release today that it “was misled” by Donziger. Stratus went on to say that the plaintiffs’ legal team used its extensive research as the basis of a 4,000-page report filed with the court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador. The report was supposed to be neutral and independent, but it was not, Stratus said. The consulting firm described a court process in Ecuador that “was tainted by Donziger and the Lago Agrio plaintiffs representatives’ behind-the-scenes activities.”

Chevron had named Stratus as a co-defendant with Donziger in the New York lawsuit. In its press release, Stratus said the damages assessment to which it contributed, as well as other evidence filed in court in Ecuador by the plaintiffs, “were fatally tainted and are not reliable.” The consulting firm disavowed its work and said it would “cooperate fully” with Chevron and “provide testimony about the Ecuador litigation.” Stratus added that it “deeply regrets its involvement in the Ecuador litigation.” Separate court filings indicate that Stratus has not agreed to pay any money to settle Chevron’s claims against it.

Craig Smyser, another lawyer representing the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, said in a statement late on April 11 that Chevron had “bullied” the consulting firm, which faced “financial extinction” if it did not change its position. “We are confident Stratus will stand by the statements it made in court and to the public, including those on CBS’ 60 Minutes, detailing the science of Chevron’s pollution in the Ecuadorian rain forest,” Smyser said.

Chevron is expected to file more specific declarations from Stratus principals in federal court in New York in coming days. Judge Lewis Kaplan, who’s presiding over Chevron’s civil racketeering suit against Donziger, has scheduled a hearing for April 16.

Donziger’s reversal of fortune over the past two years has been nothing short of breathtaking. Heralded by Amazon Watch and other environmentalists, praised in a highly regarded 2009 documentary film, and heroized by CBS’s (CBS) 60 Minutes, Donziger now faces the second-largest oil company in the U.S. without the scientists who once backed his pioneering case. His financing has dried up, his public-relations consultant recently left the case, and his room to maneuver appears to be diminishing quickly.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014.

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