By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ecuadorean villagers and a U.S. lawyer who represents them are not entitled to a jury in an upcoming trial over whether they used fraud to win an $18 billion pollution award against Chevron Corp, a U.S. judge ruled on Monday.
Chevron alleges that the villagers and their lawyer, Steven Donziger, used fraud and bribery to obtain the award in an Ecuadorean court in 2011. At the trial in federal court in New York that begins on October 15, the oil company is seeking to prevent them from profiting from the award.
In a written opinion on Monday, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan said the villagers and Donziger are not entitled to a jury because Chevron is not seeking damages claims against them.
Kaplan will instead rule on the trial himself.
"Chevron is looking forward to holding Steven Donziger and his co-conspirators accountable for orchestrating and executing a fraudulent extortion scheme against the company," Morgan Crinklaw, a spokesman for Chevron, said in an email.
The ruling is another setback for the villagers and Donziger, who have said Kaplan is biased and who last month lost a bid in a federal appeals court to have him replaced.
"Given the documented evidence of his own bias, Judge Kaplan's last-minute decision is a clear abuse of power and again shows Chevron does not believe enough in its own case to present it to a jury," Chris Gowen, a spokesman for Donziger and the Ecuadoreans, said in an email.
"This critical decision made only days before trial virtually guarantees Chevron its desired outcome from a judge who already has decided all key issues ... before evidence has been presented."
Previous cases have established that a jury trial is no longer available when a party waives its damages claims, Kaplan wrote. "Given Chevron's unequivocal commitment to 'seek in this action only equitable relief,' that is the end of the matter," Kaplan wrote.
Kaplan's decision is the latest in a long-running legal battle stemming from environmental contamination in the Amazon jungle between 1964 and 1992 by Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001.
The Ecuadoreans have been unable to collect the $18 billion award because Chevron no longer has any operations in Ecuador. They have also tried to enforce the award through courts in Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
The case is Chevron Corp v. Steven Donziger et al, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 11-0691.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)