Doe v. Unocal

Doe v. Unocal

Then known as Hadsell & Stormer, the firm represented 14 Burmese villagers in a landmark lawsuit against Unocal, the Doe v. Unocal case, CV 96-6959 RAP. The case was filed in 1996 in the Central District of California by villagers who suffered when a gas pipeline was built across Burma by a joint venture including Unocal Corp., headquartered in El Segundo, California. Plaintiffs brought claims under the Alien Tort Statute (28 U.S.C. §1350) for forced labor, crimes against humanity, violence against women and torture. They also brought numerous California tort claims, including battery, false imprisonment, wrongful death and negligence.

The District Court granted summary judgment on the ATS claims against the plaintiffs, holding that “the evidence does suggest that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that the Joint Venturers benefitted from the practice. However, because such a showing is insufficient to establish liability under international law, Plaintiffs’ claim against Unocal for forced labor under the Alien Tort Claims Act fails as a matter of law.” 110 F. Supp. 2d 1294, 1310 (C.D. Cal. 2000).

The 9th Circuit reversed, holding that the facts did support a claim under international law, differing 2-1 on what the proper standard should be. 395 F.3d 932 (9 th Cir. 2002). A petition to rehear the matter en banc was granted, and a decision was pending at the time the matter was ultimately resolved.

In the meantime, the federal judge had remanded the supplemental state law claims to state court, where a Superior Court judge, the Honorable Victoria Chaney (subsequently elevated to the Court of Appeal), overruled a demurrer, denied a motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed to trial. Just as the case was primed for a trial on the merits, the matter settled. Although the terms were confidential, the settlement “compensated plaintiffs and provided funds to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care, and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region.”

The case was one of the first to allege violations of international human rights laws against U.S. corporations, although it alleged state law claims as well. A documentary film was made about the case, called “Total Denial.” HSRR co-counseled the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International, Judith Chomsky and Paul Hoffman. For more information about the case, see

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