SAN FRANCISCO — A federal jury Monday cleared Chevron Corp. of any responsibility in the shooting of Nigerian villagers by military forces during a protest at an offshore oil platform, concluding a closely watched case brought under a seldom-invoked 1789 law allowing foreigners to sue in the United States.
Survivors of the 1998 incident had argued that the oil company should be held accountable because it paid the police and soldiers and transported them by helicopter to the oil platform, where they shot and killed two unarmed protesters and wounded two others.
San Ramon-based Chevron, California's largest company, countered that the villagers were holding workers hostage at the platform and that the company acted responsibly by calling in local authorities to protect them.
"We are pleased with the verdict today," Chevron spokesman Don Campbell said. "The jury upheld our position that our response was a reasonable one."
Bert Voorhees, an attorney for the Nigerian villagers, said the plaintiffs' team of attorneys would appeal.
He said he was disappointed that they were not able to convince the jury that Chevron acted improperly when it called in the brutal Nigerian police unit known as the "Kill and Go" squad to break up the peaceful protest. The villagers denied taking hostages or committing acts of violence.
Voorhees said "cultural barriers" may have made it difficult for the jury to understand the situation in Nigeria, where brutality and corruption were commonplace under the rule of Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in 1998 shortly after the incident at the oil platform.
"It's a difficult story to tell a third of the way around the world," Voorhees said. "I'm disappointed we weren't able to find a way to show the jury what was going on."
He said the plaintiffs also were hampered by rulings from U.S. District Judge Susan Illston, including allowing Chevron to present testimony about the hijacking of a nearby tugboat by protesters fleeing the shooting.
Voorhees said none of the plaintiffs was connected to the tugboat incident and that allowing the testimony was a "clear error."
Larry Bowoto, the lead plaintiff in the case, who testified that he was shot in the elbow, side and buttock while holding up his hands, said he was disappointed in the verdict and Chevron's apparent success in casting the protesters as kidnappers.
"Our effort is to tell the whole world the truth of this matter," he said through an interpreter. "We came to the U.S. seeking justice. The defendants so far did not give us the justice we are looking for."
The case was brought under the Alien Tort Statute, signed into law by President Washington.
In recent years, environmental and human rights activists have increasingly sought to use the law to hold U.S. companies to the standards they abide by in the United States.
In 2005, Unocal settled a similar lawsuit brought by 15 villagers from Myanmar alleging that the company was responsible for forced labor, rapes and a murder committed by soldiers along the route of a natural-gas pipeline. Soon after the settlement, Unocal was acquired by Chevron.
But so far, plaintiffs' attorneys have not succeeded in winning a jury verdict against a U.S. company, legal experts said. Activists had hoped to set a precedent with the Nigeria case.
Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a professor at UC Hastings' College of the Law who observed part of the trial, said the verdict appears to have turned on the facts in the case, not on whether the Alien Tort Statute should apply.
"What really struck me is that after 10 years, the case came down to basic tort law -- the tort part of the Alien Torts act," she said. "There were two different sets of facts, and they were very far apart."
Despite the outcome, Roht-Arriaza said the trial was a success for the human rights community because the lawyers succeeded in bringing a case to trial under the Alien Tort law.
In the future, corporations operating in countries with corrupt, repressive regimes will have to weigh the possibility of being held accountable in a U.S. court for the actions of the police and military, she said.
"The fact that they managed to have a jury trial was already a huge victory," she said. "If you are a corporate executive, you have to consider the consequences of calling in the security forces, especially if they are known to be abusive."
Chevron also faces a major lawsuit in Ecuador that began as a case against Texaco under the Alien Tort law. Chevron acquired the company in 2001 and is liable under the lawsuit, which has since been moved to Ecuador.
In that case, villagers in the Amazon Basin charge that the oil company caused massive pollution by dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater at the surface, rather than injecting it back into the ground, between 1964 and 1992.
A consultant to the Ecuadorean court last week assessed the potential damages at $27 billion -- roughly equal to Chevron's profits over a year and a half.
Mitch Anderson of Amazon Watch, an environmental group that is helping villagers in the case, said the contamination of groundwater in the Amazon amounts to "time-release genocide."
But Chevron, coming off its victory in the Nigeria suit, signaled that it would continue fighting the Ecuador case aggressively.
"The way we view the lawsuit today is that you have American trial attorneys gaming the system in Ecuador and seeking a fat payday," Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said.