Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win by Paul M. Barrett. PART 2 OF 2.

Sep 17, 2017, 02:02 AM

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Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win by Paul M. Barrett. PART 2 OF 2.

Anatomy of a Conspiracy Steven Donziger had a keen sense of how to win the class-action suit against Chevron: ‘In the end of the day, it is about brute force.’ By Bret Stephens Updated Nov. 17, 2014 1:28 p.m. ET 24 COMMENTS In March 2002, three Amazonian Indians paid a visit to New York. Dressed in palm skirts and sporting blow-dart guns, they had come from Ecuador as part of an environmental lawsuit-cum-publicity stunt organized by a charismatic American lawyer named Steven Donziger. After they walked down Broadway in near-freezing weather, Mr. Donziger took his barefoot clients to an East Village restaurant so they could sample “nouvelle Southwestern cuisine.”

“Given a choice,” writes journalist Paul M. Barrett in “Law of the Jungle,” his well-crafted account of the epic suit, “they would have preferred roast monkey.”

By the time Mr. Donziger hosted the Amazonians in Manhattan, the case was nearly a decade old. It had begun in 1993 as a $1.5 billion class-action against Texaco, which had operated a subsidiary in Ecuador from the late 1960s to the early ’90s. The plaintiffs alleged that the oil company (acquired by Chevron in 2001) had left behind a toxic dump in the jungle. Visitors to Ecuador’s Oriente region, where the wells had been drilled, could easily find open pits of gooey black oil. One expert witness hired by Mr. Donziger described the environmental damage as “larger than the Chernobyl disaster,” though he later recanted that testimony. Yet as attractive as such details might have seemed, the case was no slam-dunk. Texaco had not been the majority operator in Ecuador since the mid-1970s, when it had ceded control of oil operations in the country to its partner, PetroEcuador, a state-owned firm with an execrable environmental record. Texaco had also spent tens of millions of dollars on cleaning up its well sites and spill areas as required by its agreement with the Ecuadorian government.

More important, from a legal point of view, Texaco insisted that the proper jurisdiction for any suit was Ecuador, not the U.S. An American judge agreed, ruling that the plaintiffs needed to “face the reality” that U.S. courts did not have “a general writ to right the world’s wrongs.”

So the case should have closed, but for two things: the state of law in Ecuador and the character of Mr. Donziger.


By Paul M. Barrett Crown, 290 pages, $26

In 1998, the government of Ecuador had “released, absolved, and discharged forever” Texaco from “any claim or litigation” related to its oil operations. But that release did not prevent suits by private citizens, nor did it matter much in a country where evidence could be manufactured, judges could be bought and governments could change overnight.

Then there was Mr. Donziger. The Florida native had become enamored with Latin America as a young reporter covering the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Later, at Harvard Law School, he came under the spell of a Marxist approach to the law known as Critical Legal Studies. “Prevalent within Harvard’s faculty,” Mr. Barrett, a former editor and reporter at the Journal, explains, “CLS taught that corporations and the politically privileged systematically manipulated legal concepts . . . to maintain hierarchical authority and take advantage of ordinary people.”

Schooled in such principles, Mr. Donziger went to work. Though he had little experience as a practicing attorney, he had a keen sense of what it would take to win the Ecuador case: “All this bull— about law and facts” didn’t matter, Mr. Barrett quotes him at one point as saying. “In the end of the day, it is about brute force.” One gambit Mr. Donziger employed, the ...