‘Crude’ Footage was Out of Context? Tell it to the Judge

By November 15, 2010Briefly Legal, Energy

The legal publication, Corporate Counsel, did a great service recently in publishing video outtakes from “Crude,” the documentary-style movie about the $113 billion lawsuit against Chevron for supposed environmental damage in Ecuador. The outtakes showed the U.S. trial lawyer driving the litigation, Steven Donziger, and his activist allies manipulating the Ecuadorian judicial system, orchestrating a bogus damage assessment, and scheming to have unjust criminal prosecutions brought against two of Chevron’s attorneys in the country.

The outtakes have destroyed any legal credibility and moral standing claimed by the plaintiffs. Most recently, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York repeatedly cited the footage as providing good reason for Donziger to submit to questioning by Chevron.

Obviously recognizing how damaging the outtakes would be to their cause, the plaintiffs originally tried mightily to keep the video out of court and the public eye. Now that the footage been made public, how to respond?

Karen Hinton, the PR person for the Amazon Defense Coalition, resorts to the usual bluster and claims “out of context” in her response to Corporate Counsel’s publication of the videos. The magazine has posted her comments online, “Plaintiffs Respond to the Chevron Outtakes.” The response follows Hinton’s usual modus operandi: Shout loudly and repeatedly, attack your critics for bad faith, and throw out whatever accusation you can to muddy the discussion. Here’s the gist:

The Ecuadoran victims of Chevron’s massive environmental disaster call on American Lawyer to correct inaccurately translated video outtakes posted on its website and to properly contextualize the contents. The outtakes, from the award-winning documentary Crude, were exclusively edited by Chevron’s counsel at Gibson Dunn and clearly were not reviewed by the magazine for accuracy. Further, American Lawyer should post all 600 hours of the Berlinger video outtakes, the vast majority of which show Chevron’s misconduct in creating what many experts believe is the world’s worst oil-related disaster.

Weird to see the same people who argued against releasing any footage now arguing for its entire release. But the Amazon Defense Coalition has access to the video. Stop complaining already: Go ahead and post it online yourself.

There’s one laugh-out-loud claim in Hinton’s rebuttal: “It is also obvious these outtakes have little or no legal significance …” Uh huh. That’s not how Judge Kaplan sees it according to his recent opinion ordering Donziger’s depositions:

The evidence before this Court shows that Donziger has attempted to (1) intimidate the Ecuadorian judges, (2) obtain political support for the Ecuadorian lawsuit, (3) persuade the [Government of Ecuador] to promote the interests of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs, (4) obtain favorable media coverage, (5) solicit the support of celebrities (including Daryl Hannah and Trudie Styler) and environmental groups, (6) procure and package “expert” testimony for use in Ecuador, (7) pressure Chevron to pay a large settlement, and (8) obtain a book deal. Among his efforts was his persuasion of Joseph Berlinger, a documentary film maker, to make a documentary about the Lago Agrio litigation from the plaintiffs’ point of view. That film, entitled Crude, purports to tell the story of the Lago Agrio litigation. It is no exaggeration to say that Donziger is the star of the film, much of which focuses on his words and activities.

Most people in the PR business try to avoid making laughably preposterous claims, ones that are demonstrably untrue. They tend to undermine your credibility.

When the book is written on the anti-Chevron litigation — suggested title, “Imperial Arrogance: U.S. Trial Lawyers and the Fraudulent Campaign against Chevron” — much of it will deal with the public relations machine that sought to disguise the true nature of the big-money shakedown. Perhaps in a moment of reflection, one of the lawyers or activists will say, “Yes. We really overplayed our hand. All that shouting worked when we were manipulating lefty bloggers, naive documentarians, sympathetic reporters and ’60 Minutes,’ but once we got in the courts it proved an abject failure.”

Possible. But we can also imagine a more typical Hinton reaction, something along the lines of “AARARHARHARHARHAGHHAGHASG!!!”

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