The Business of Plaintiffs’ Law: To Make [Expletive] Money

By January 14, 2011Briefly Legal, Energy, Trade

Thank goodness for “Crude,” the documentary-style film that followed the litigation and PR campaign against Chevron. Thanks to the cameramen and their cameras, we learn that the $27 billion — and then $113 billion — lawsuit orchestrated by U.S. trial lawyers isn’t about cleaning up the environment in Ecuador, justice for Amazonians, or punishing rapacious corporations. No, it’s all about “the business of the plaintiffs’ law, to make f****** money.”

That’s the revealing quote from Steven Donziger, the trial lawyer whose frank admissions on outtakes from “Crude” have shown the litigation to be a naked shakedown of a deep-pockets U.S. company. You can watch Donziger utter the uncensored remarks in the clip below, shot after a plaintiffs’ group exited the offices of The San Francisco Chronicle in April 2007.


DONZIGER: Very successful.
Cameraman: What’s that?
DONZIGER: That was very successful.
Cameraman: In what way?
[crosstalk] DONZIGER: Just connecting, connecting. You can never underestimate the power of personal relationships in this business.
Camerman: What business is that?
DONZIGER: The business of getting press coverage as part of the legal strategy…The business of plaintiff’s law, to make f****** money.

Of course, Donziger is hardly the only trial lawyer who lives by this creed.

The illuminating outtakes from “Crude” are all part of the public record, having been submitted as evidence in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. We’ve posted many other clips from “Crude” at the YouTube/NAMvideo playlist, Ecuador Oil Litigation.

As AOL Politics Daily columnist Matt Lewis observes, “Chevron, a Lawsuit, and Why Documentary Films Like ‘Crude’ Can Be a Bad Idea.” Lewis’ observation builds on our Thursday post, “Videos Reveal Anti-Chevron Strategy: Politics, Pressure and Lies.” (Thank you for the citations.)

It pained Joe Berlinger, the director of “Crude,” to be forced to release the clips because (along with demonstrating the corruption at the heart of the lawsuit to which he was sympathetic) they revealed him to be serving the interests of the plaintiffs’ team. There are occasions when the subjects say, in effect, “Why are they filming?” and the cameras go off.

No wonder the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that Berlinger could not claim a journalist’s privilege to keep the outtakes confidential. From the opinion, Chevron v. Berlinger, et al.

Berlinger contends the district court abused its discretion in ordering production of the outtake footage. He argues that his investigative journalism recorded in the raw footage is protected from such compelled disclosure by the press privilege. He therefore asks that we overturn the district court’s order.

We reject Berlinger’s contention. Given all the circumstances of the making of the film, as reasonably found by the district court, particularly the fact that Berlinger’s making of the film was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and that changes to the film were made at their instance, Berlinger failed to carry his burden of showing that he collected information for the purpose of independent reporting and commentary.

And really, if Berlinger were an independent reporter, wouldn’t he found a way to get more punchy quotes like Donziger’s oath to greed into the film? Or Donziger’s explanation of the how the plaintiffs planned to intimidate the Ecuadorian court?

The court fights over the footage have prompted a spate of new reporting and commentary. Let’s hope the substance of the footage draws similar attention.

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