Poisoned Justice

Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to WinLaw 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
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle is a fast-paced and compelling account of legal corruption and corporate wrongdoing, in which a passionate advocate is undone through his own hubris and unscrupulous pursuit of what began as a noble crusade to rescue the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants from massive pollution by Big Oil. Although the dominant theme is the tragedy of single lawyer undone by his loss of a moral compass, the story could equally well be read as a giant corporation’s escape from deserved liability as a result of the fecklessness of the legal system and the failings of the victims’ advocates. In the end, the Indians of the Amazon are faced with ongoing, unchecked pollution, and the oil company’s victory serves as a cautionary tale to any lawyer who dares to attempt to hold Big Oil accountable for its actions.

The signal failure of the American legal system from the outset of the case was to delay adjudication on the merits for nine and half years while it noodled over the question of forum non conveniens, i.e. where the case could best be tried, and in the end turned over the case at Big Oil’s request to a weak and corrupt third-world judiciary that was wholly unequipped to handle it. Much to the surprise of the oil company’s battalion of high-priced lawyers, in the corrupt world of Ecuadorian politics they were outmaneuvered at every turn by a no-holds-barred advocate whose dirty tricks more than matched their own. It is clear that the oil company was no more principled in its conduct of litigation in Ecuador than plaintiff’s attorney Steven Donziger; its clumsy Armada was simply far less agile and maneuverable than Donziger’s slick fleet of native activists, paid off experts, and corrupt judges and politicians, who deployed a devastating public relations campaign complete with rock stars, investigations on Sixty Minutes, and a canned documentary film, resulting in a $19 billion judgment against Chevron.

Donziger’s dishonest tactics ultimately proved his undoing when Chevron initiated a ruthless campaign against him under the racketeering laws in the American court system after 19 years of litigation – with virtually no cleanup.
Barrett offers a trenchant final chapter of conclusions at the end of the book, which it would be tempting to read first, but one question that lingers is whether the Donziger debacle and subsequent Supreme Court rulings gutting the Alien Tort Statute leave any hope that the rights of indigenous people trampled by American multinationals can be vindicated by legitimate means. Donziger only prevailed in Ecuador because he was more proficient at dirty tricks than Big Oil, but the book leaves open the question whether in light of its refusal to hear the case on the merits in a fair forum, the American legal system has the will or capacity to hold its corporate citizens accountable for their irresponsible actions abroad. In the end, the abiding impression this book leaves is one of deep pessimism.

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