Unocal Wins 1st Phase of Myanmar Lawsuit

Unocal has won the first round of a closely watched case in Los Angeles on whether the company can be held liable for human rights abuses stemming for a Myanmar pipeline project it helped build.

Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney ruled at the conclusion of a bench trial that El Segundo, California-based Unocal was not acting as an "alter ego" for five subsidiaries that invested in the Yadana pipeline.

Chaney left open the possibility that Unocal could face a jury trial on a different theory of liability on the claims of 15 villagers that they were enslaved and abused by the Myanmar military. The military guarded the $1.2 billion natural gas pipeline between the Andaman Sea and Thailand during its construction from 1993 until its completion in 1998.

Unocal attorney Daniel Petrocelli described the ruling as a "complete vindication" for the company, which he said had been vilified during the near decade it has taken the case to reach trial.

Dan Stormer, a lawyer for the villagers, said he was disappointed in the judge's ruling but said he and the other civil rights attorneys working on the case would press on.

"The most critical ruling (Chaney) made is that Unocal knew or should have known about human rights violations in Burma," Stormer said. "We will get our trial."

None of the plaintiffs was in the Los Angeles courtroom for the verdict.

Unocal also faces two federal court actions brought by the same plaintiffs under the 200-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign nationals to sue in U.S. courts for human rights abuses.