SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A jury began deliberating on Tuesday on whether Chevron Corp (CVX.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) is liable for a death and injuries among Nigerians in a clash that ended their three-day occupation of an offshore oil platform a decade ago.
The trial, closely watched because it raises so many tough issues that face resource-rich countries and multinational companies, was brought by one of the occupiers, Larry Bowoto, who was injured by gunfire in the clash with Nigerian forces.
Plaintiffs argued Chevron was liable for damages because it paid, fed and housed the troops flown in by helicopter to end the May 1998 occupation and that the U.S. oil company was negligent in calling them while negotiations were ongoing.
"They don't want to be held accountable now but you, through our system of justice, get to hold them accountable," lawyer Dan Stormer told the jury in his closing argument.
Chevron lawyer Bob Mittelstaedt insisted a company had a duty to protect its workers, but denied Chevron was liable for the actions of forces in a military operation.
"Hostage takers don't have any right to determine how long they hold hostages before the police are called," Mittelstaedt said in his closing remarks, adding that negotiations stalled because of a "ransom" demanded by the occupiers.
"The decision was based on their concern about the safety of the workers," he told the federal court in San Francisco.
Addressing the payments question, Mittelstaedt said because government forces were the only security option in an unstable part of Nigeria, it was normal for oil companies to pay them extra to guard property and also provide them food and housing given the remote locations.
He argued California-based Chevron officials who had said in 1998 that the company did not pay them were unaware of the practice. Stormer countered by pointing to court testimony of the payments by Chevron Nigeria Ltd being approved by Chevron Corp.
Prior to the platform's occupation by about 100 Nigerian villagers, Chevron said it received threatening letters from a group demanding jobs for their people and compensation for pollution of their water by the oil industry.
Workers on the platform, which is nine miles off the West African coast, testified that the protesters were drinking alcohol and threatening them. Mittelstaedt presented a photograph to the jury to prove they had access to knives.
Hostage-taking and ransom demands are a regular hazard for oil companies working in the Niger Delta, where impoverished villagers complain they see no benefit from the industry.
Only on Tuesday, Nigerian security forces said gunmen seeking to protect a trade in stolen crude had attacked military positions in the delta for the third time in a week.
Parabe accounted for a fifth of Chevron's Nigerian daily crude oil output of 400,000 barrels.
The Bowoto case was brought against San Ramon, California-based Chevron under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which dates back to 1789 and allows foreigners to sue over human rights abuses committed in their countries.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) faces a similar trial in New York early next year on charges of human rights violations and racketeering in Nigeria.
A landmark decision a decade ago found another California oil company, Unocal Corp, could be sued in a U.S. court for its alleged role in human rights abuses in Myanmar. Unocal settled in 2005, just weeks before agreeing to be bought by Chevron.
(Reporting by Braden Reddall; Editing by Gary Hill)