Judges unimpressed by rhetoric in $18 billion Ecuador oil case

Oil contamination in Ecuador. Photo by Lawrence Hurley

Today it was the turn of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to host the traveling roadshow known as Chevron Corp.’s fight to avoid paying up to $18 billion dollars for environmental damage in Ecuador.

The case has famously gone on for almost two decades now. Last year, a judge in Ecuador ruled that Chevron was liable for up to $18 billion for contamination caused by Texaco Petroleum Corp. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 (see my 2011 Greenwire series on the litigation for the full background). Even before that judgment came down, Chevron made it clear that it thought the claims against it were fraudulent and to that end commenced a federal racketeering case against the plaintiffs and their American lawyers. The oil giant’s attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and their adversaries at Patton Boggs have been in and out of courts all over the country fighting over discovery in both the racketeering case and other actions both sides have brought in relation to the litigation in Ecuador.

That’s what bought Theodore Boutrous of Gibson Dunn and James Tyrrell of Patton Boggs before a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today, a development that prompted Chief Judge David Sentelle to remark that the case “has been argued in more courts than any other.”

The argument provided an insight into the frosty relations between the parties in what has become notoriously fractious litigation. Sentelle was keen to steer clear of the colorful rhetoric both sides have been known to use. “We have heard the vitriol that both sides want to spill on each other,” he noted at one point.

Even more revealing, in the hall outside just after the argument, Tyrrell was talking to me when Boutrous walked past. Boutrous greeted me but didn’t say a word to Tyrrell, who remarked that it’s the only case he’s ever worked on in which the attorneys don’t speak to each other.

As for the meat of today’s argument, here’s what I reported in Greenwire:

A federal appeals court today seemed inclined to rule that a lower court judge acted too hastily in allowing Chevron Corp. access to documents prepared by a consulting firm working for Ecuadorean plaintiffs in a high-profile case that has dragged on for almost 20 years.

The oil giant wants documents from the Weinberg Group, a scientific consulting firm that the plaintiffs had hired to prepare a report on the alleged environmental damages in the eastern part of Ecuador.

Published by

Lawrence Hurley

Reporter based in Washington