Steven R. Donziger

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Steven R. Donziger (born in 1961[1]) is an American lawyer, a former public defender who came to prominence for representing the plaintiffs (thousands of Amazon peasants and tribespeople ) in the Lago Agrio oil field case against the former well operator Texaco, now part of Chevron Corporation. On February 14, 2011, a local court in Ecuador ordered Chevron Corporation to pay $18.1 billion but was later reduced to $9.5 billion by the Ecuador Supreme Court.[2]

Following the judgment, Chevron claimed that it had been procured by fraud and brought a RICO claim against Donziger in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (S.D.N.Y.). Judge Lewis Kaplan issued an opinion on 4 March 2014, accepting Chevron's allegations. The court found that Donziger corrupted the Ecuadorian case by submitting fraudulent evidence, coercing the judge, paying off a supposedly impartial expert, paying a Colorado consulting firm to write the expert's report, falsely presenting the report as the expert's own work, bribing the judge to give a ruling against Chevron and then trying to mislead the US courts.[3] A previous ruling by Judge Kaplan to enjoin collection of the judgment was reversed in 2011 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which concluded that the New York state statute on which Kaplan's ruling was based was inapplicable. Judge Kaplan's latest ruling, which is based on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is on appeal to the Second Circuit as of May 2015.[4]


Donziger graduated from American University and has a law degree from Harvard University. Before law school, he had worked in Central America as a journalist.[5] At Harvard Law School friends referred to him as “Big Steve” because of his large physical stature, and he played basketball with Barack Obama, another member of the Class of 1991.[6] Since then, he worked for 2 years as a public defender in Washington, D.C. and in private practice. He has worked on hundreds of cases but is most well known for the pursuit of the case on behalf of the plaintiffs of Lago Agrio, seeking damages for environmental harm allegedly caused by waste from dumping by Texaco.[6]

The Lago Agrio case[edit]

The Lago Agrio is a large oil field in Ecuador which was 62.5% owned by Ecuador's state owned oil company Petroecuador with Texaco as a minority owner and operating partner. Texaco left Ecuador in 1992. Under a remediation agreement signed in 1994 Texaco cleaned up its share of the joint venture’s oil fields in a three-year process. The Ecuadorian government monitored and signed off on the remediation as having been properly completed in 1998. Petroecuador never did fully clean up its share of the oil fields.[7] Texaco was later purchased by Chevron in 2001. In 1993, some 30,000 residents of the area sued Chevron, alleging that Texaco had left behind massive damages to the environment and to human health. Donziger entered the case in 1993, initially as part of the plaintiffs' legal team. By 2003 he had emerged as the plaintiffs' principal spokesman, leading US legal counsel, and head strategist for the Ecuadoran legal team.

According to environmental activists such as, the environmental damage in this case is so vast that it has been called the Amazonian Chernobyl.[8] The plaintiffs say that they have suffered damages including pools of toxic sludge, poisoned drinking water, uninhabitable or unusable property, and community-wide increases in birth defects and chronic illnesses such as cancers and skin lesions.

Lawsuits in the United States and Ecuador[edit]

The suit against Chevron was originally filed in US courts. Chevron-Texaco argued the case should be heard in Ecuador and agreed to abide by whatever judgment emerged from that country.[9] Chevron acquired Texaco with full knowledge of the litigation, but did not report the potential liability to its shareholders.[6] In 2001, the US court ruled in favor of Chevron that Ecuador was the proper venue.

The Ecuadorian lawyers refiled the case in Ecuador, and on February 14, 2011, a local court in Ecuador ordered Chevron Corporation to pay $18.1 billion. The award was later reduced to $9.5 billion by the Ecuador Supreme Court.[2]

Attempts to collect from Chevron[edit]

Chevron then stated that the Ecuadorian case was fraudulent, on the basis of 600 hours of out-takes from the film "Crude" (out-takes which Chevron says prove Donziger was "planning to falsify evidence & commit corruption", according to a Tweet on 3/19/14) and allegations of evidence-tempering by the court.[10] A U.S. federal court later ruled in support of Chevron's claims.[11]

On the basis that Donziger and others of the plaintiffs' team had engaged in misconduct, Chevron obtained an injunction from Judge Lewis Kaplan against collection anywhere in the world of the Ecuadorian damage award.[12][13]

The Ecuadorian plaintiffs whom Donziger represents attempted to enforce the judgment in Ontario, Canada, but the action was dismissed in May 2013.[14][15] Chevron had assets frozen in Argentina, until the Argentina's Supreme Court freed the assets in June 2013.[16][17]

Actions to collect on the Ecuadorian verdict are being pursued in Colombia.[18]

One Chevron spokesperson said “We’re going to fight this until Hell freezes over—and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”[6]

Public relations[edit]

From the start, Donziger organized a media and public relations campaign to put additional pressure on Chevron to settle. His efforts included bringing plaintiffs to Manhattan to appear in native dress outside the courtroom, arranging for a plaintiff to crash a Chevron annual shareholders meeting in Houston, and arranging “toxic tours” of the Lago Agrio oil field for reporters.[19]

Partly through Donziger’s invitation, celebrities such as Sting and Daryl Hannah have publicly supported the Lago Agrio plaintiffs.

Donziger interested the television news show 60 Minutes into doing the feature segment "Amazon crude" on the Lago Agrio case. The May 2009 broadcast was highly critical of Chevron.

In 2005 Donziger convinced documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger to make a film about the case. Crude debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, followed by a theatrical release.[20]

Suit against Donziger by Chevron[edit]

Chevron sued Donziger for extortion and criminal conspiracy under the RICO statute. Danzinger was accused of coercion, bribery, and other misconduct. This misconduct included bribing the Ecuadoran court-appointed environmental expert, paying a firm to ghostwrite the experts findings, bribing the Ecuadoran judge, and ghostwriting the judge's decision.[21]

Donziger's cooperation with the filming of the documentary Crude turned on him when Chevron sought to have access to 600 hours of scenes that were not included in the final film. Chevron sued the filmmaker for access to the out-takes. The court ruled for Chevron, writing that Berlinger had not acted as a neutral journalist, but as an agent for the plaintiffs. Robert Redford called the potential negative ramifications for this decision "both shocking and profound" in its effect on the journalist community, the film world and society in general.[22] Included in the out-takes acquired by Chevron were scenes showing Donziger expressing skepticism about the reliability of the Ecuadorian courts, a supposedly neutral court-appointed cleanup expert at a plaintiff lawyers' strategy meeting, and Donziger telling his environmental experts that in the end the case and the size of the award will be decided by political pressure. Chevron submitted the Crude out-takes as evidence in its suit against Donziger in US federal court.[21]

In March 2014, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the federal circuit court in New York ruled that Donziger had used “corrupt means,” including "coercion, bribery, money laundering and other misconduct," to obtain the 2011 court verdict in Ecuador. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s legal team, led by Donziger, had bribed Judge Zambrano to allow the plaintiffs to write the 188-page Ecuadorian court decision against Chevron, which Zambrano issued under his own name in 2011.[23] Judge Kaplan did not rule on the underlying issue of environmental damages. While Kaplan's ruling does not affect the decision of the court in Ecuador, it blocks efforts to collect damages from Chevron in US courts.[24][25] Donziger's counter-claims have been dismissed.[26]

Donziger and his two Ecuadorean co-defendants, Hugo Camacho and Javier Piaguaje, appealed Judge Kaplan’s verdict. Donziger is represented by Washington, DC, appellate lawyer Deepak Gupta of the Gupta Beck firm and the Ecuadorians are represented by NYU law professor Burt Neuborne. In his brief to the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, filed in July 2014, Donziger argued that Judge Kaplan lacked jurisdiction to hear a preemptive attack on a foreign judgment. He further argued that allegations of trial-level improprieties should not affect Chevron’s liability for damages for pollution, as determined by the Ecuadorean judicial system, a process which included the initial verdict, review of the evidence de novo by an Ecuadorean court of appeals, and confirmation by the Ecuadorean Supreme Court.[27]


  1. ^ "Overexposed – The American Lawyer". April 25, 2011. Retrieved July 22, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Amazon Crusader. Chevron Pest. Fraud?". Business Week. March 9, 2011. Retrieved July 22, 2011. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Appeals judges skeptical of the need to intervene in Chevron’s RICO case - Fortune". 
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d
  7. ^ Fortune
  8. ^
  9. ^ Republic of Ecuador v. ChevronTexaco Corp., 376 F. Supp. 2d 334; 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12562
  10. ^ Chevron Corporation v. The Republic of Ecuador, PCA Case No. 14 2009-23 (Feb. 9, 2011)
  11. ^ "Big Victory for Chevron Over Claims in Ecuador -". 
  12. ^ "Ecuador judgment against Chevron tainted by corruption, U.S. judge says". Oil Patch Asia. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ CBC News  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ CTV "Judge dismisses $19B Ecuador judgment against Chevron's Canadian subsidiary"
  16. ^ Wall Street Journal [1]"Argentina's Top Court Unfreezes Chevron Assets"
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Patrick Radden Keefe, “Reversal of fortune”, New Yorker, 9 Jan. 2012.
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b Fortune
  22. ^ Redford, Robert (June 4, 2010). "Joe Berlinger vs. Chevron: Why We Must All Defend Independent Filmmaking". Huffington Post. 
  23. ^ Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, Opinion: Chevron Corporation v. Steven Donziger et al, US District Court, Southern District of New York, 14 March 2014.
  24. ^ BBC, US judge annuls Ecuador oil ruling against Chevron, 4 Mar. 2014.
  25. ^ "U.S. Judge Hands Win to Chevron, Slams Lawyer". The Wall Street Journal. March 4, 2014. 
  26. ^ Clifford Krauss (July 30, 2013). "Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own". The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  27. ^ Jennifer Smith, “Lawyers battling Chevron appeal racketeering verdict to Second Circuit”, Wall Street Journal, 3 July 2014.

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