Ecuador judge hearing Chevron case changed again

Steve Orlofsky
Friday, January 1, 2010

The judge hearing an oil pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp (CVX.N) in Ecuador has been replaced, the court said on Friday, setting the stage for the third judge in a year to take over the $27 billion case. * Chevron asked for judge to be replaced * Previous judge had recused himself last year * Plaintiffs seek $27 billion in environmental damages (Adds Chevron comment)

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The judge hearing an oil pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp (CVX.N) in Ecuador has been replaced, the court said on Friday, setting the stage for the third judge in a year to take over the $27 billion case.

A previous judge in the 18-year-old lawsuit, which was started in New York before being moved to Ecuador, recused himself last year after he was accused of misconduct and involvement in a bribery scheme.

The case, being heard in Sucumbios provincial court, has spawned related legal actions in various U.S. courts and an international arbitration, and is being closely watched by the industry for precedents that could lead to other large lawsuits against oil companies.

Chevron asked last month for Judge Leonardo Ordonez to recuse himself because he did not investigate evidence of collusion between the plaintiffs and Richard Cabrera, the court-appointed expert who came up with potential damages of up to $27 billion.

"I have removed Ordonez" from the case, Nicolas Zambrano, also of Sucumbios court, told Reuters. Zambrano himself will hear the case, he said.

Residents of Ecuador's Amazon region have said that faulty drilling practices by Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001, wrecked wide areas of the jungle in the 1970s and 1980s. Chevron has said Texaco remediated all areas of the jungle for which it was responsible. The company has also said that geologist Cabrera colluded with the plaintiffs' lawyers and technical consultants to develop a fraudulent damages assessment.

"With the removal of Judge Ordonez, it is our hope that the prior bias displayed by the court will be remedied, that the proper authorities will address the plaintiffs' lawyers' misconduct, and that Chevron's motion for the trial to be dismissed due to fraud will receive genuine consideration," Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said in an e-mailed statement.

Karen Hinton, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for the plaintiffs, said Chevron had sought to derail the Ecuador case many times since it began seven years ago. "Removing yet another judge is part of Chevron's strategy of distract and delay," Hinton said in an e-mailed statement.

In September 2009, Judge Juan Nunez stepped down from hearing the lawsuit in Lago Agrio after he was recorded discussing it with a couple of men who secretly videotaped him with cameras stuck inside a wristwatch and a pen.

Zambrano stepped in a year and two days ago to preside over the case but then handed it over to Ordonez when Ordonez was named president of Sucumbios provincial court.

[ID:nN22192851] (Reporting by Victor Gomez, with additional reporting by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)