Judge Rules Calif. Law Applies to Unocal
A Superior Court judge rejected oil giant Unocal Corp.'s claim that California law should not apply in an upcoming trial that alleges the company shares responsibility for human rights abuses carried out in Myanmar by that country's military.
Refugees from the southeast Asian nation formally known as Burma have accused El Segundo-based Unocal of being complicit in slavery, murder and rape carried out in the 1990s during construction of the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline. The case is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 22.
Two subsidiaries of Unocal, both incorporated in Bermuda, were part of the consortium that planned and built the pipeline, according to court documents.
Unocal's attorneys had argued that it would be unconstitutional to try the case under California law. They filed motions requesting the case be heard in California, but under the law of either Myanmar or Bermuda.
In a ruling late Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney wrote ``the application of foreign law would offend public policy'' in rejecting Unocal's request to use Bermuda law. She ruled that California law should apply because the state would be harmed more than Bermuda if its laws were not applied.
She also rejected the company's motion to apply Myanmar law, saying that ``there is no effective rule of law'' in the country since a military dictatorship took control in 1988. Chaney agreed with a plaintiffs' witness that the law of Myanmar is ``radically indeterminate.''
``I would say that the court properly rejected Unocal's ridiculous assertion that the law of one of the world's most oppressive military dictatorships should govern claims against a California corporation,'' said Richard Herz, litigation director at Earth Rights International, which is representing the plaintiffs.
Unocal may ask the state Court of Appeal to review the matter before trial begins, lead trial counsel Daniel Petrocelli said Thursday.
``It's important to have what we believe are the appropriate laws applied before we begin the trial,'' Petrocelli said.
The refugees first filed their lawsuit alleging federal and state claims in federal court in 1996. A judge found Unocal had no liability and dismissed the federal case, which prompted the plaintiffs to pursue their claims under state law in Superior Court.
The federal case was reinstated last fall on behalf of indigenous farmers of Myanmar by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Unocal argued in June before the full 11-judge panel that the case should be dismissed. The appeals court has not ruled.
[Source: NY Times Online News Report by The Associated Press, 31jul03]
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