If you follow international business controversies at all, you've undoubtedly seen any number of stories that follow a recurring formula. Shocking human rights abuses are reported from some locality in the developing world, such as Nigeria, Colombia, Burma/Myanmar, or Indonesia. The tales of abuse, which may relate to labor relations, the environment, or the provision of security for private worksites, are by their nature hard for western news organizations to check out. The accused culprits -- typically deep-pocketed multinationals like Shell, Coca-Cola, and Unocal -- deny everything. But never fear, a hardy band of attorneys is on hand to expose the truth by filing lawsuits for damages, not in the courts of the foreign nations where the abuses are said to have taken place, but in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act. And if you follow these stories with any regularity, you almost certainly recognize the name of Terry Collingsworth, an attorney who serves as executive director of an outfit called the International Labor Rights Fund. He's been involved in many of the highest-profile ATCA suits, his work showcased everywhere from Foreign Affairs to The Nation to Mother Jones to the Carnegie Council ("The Voice for Ethics in International Policy").
So it's news when, as the Associated Press reports, a federal judge in San Francisco rules (PDF) that the suits filed against the Chevron Corporation by some of Collingsworth's clients, based on cancer said to have arisen from its chemical pollution in Ecuador, were, in a word, bogus. Bogus as in: some victims alleged to have had cancer actually never had it, and didn't even know a U.S. lawsuit was going forward in their names. While the judge, William Alsup, a Clinton appointee, accepted the avowals of Collingsworth and his co-counsels that they didn't know the claims to be false at the time they filed them, he said the absence of even basic medical documentation should have served as "warning flags": "Counsel were obligated to investigate first and sue second, not the other way around." When fuller documentation as to one client showed no evidence of leukemia, "Plaintiff�s counsel continued the pretense � instead of doing right and dismissing the claim." When a second plaintiff informed the lawyers that she did not in fact have cancer, "counsel continued the pretense through artfully worded interrogatory answers." Judge Alsup imposed a $45,000 fine on lead counsel Crist�bal Bonifaz of Massachusetts, but said that if Bonifaz does not pay co-counsels Collingsworth and Paul Hoffman will have to make good the fine. (The controversy, it should be noted, has spawned a second legal proceeding against Chevron, and the promoters of that legal action have taken pains to point out that they are not connected with Bonifaz, his co-counsel, or the case before Judge Alsup.)
Roger Parloff at Fortune Legal Pad expertly untangles the whole sorry episode and mentions the wide attention that the Ecuador pollution allegations have gotten in the press, including a "13,000-word article by Bill Langewiesche in Vanity Fair, which barely hints at what Chevron's position might be in the matter". Collingsworth's defense is most notable for his claim that Parloff's interest in covering the story demonstrates that "the mainstream media is in the pocket of major advertisers like Chevron" (& welcome Glenn Reynolds readers). More: Oct. 31.