The lawsuit alleges that during the 1990s soldiers in Myanmar, a politically isolated country formerly known as Burma, forced male villagers to help build the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline into Thailand. El Segundo-based Unocal was a minority partner in the project.
Plaintiffs' lawyers representing 14 anonymous residents also alleged that soldiers murdered a baby, raped women and girls and forced people out of their homes to clear the pipeline's route.
The case against the oil and gas giant is considered a key test among human rights activists seeking to hold multinational corporations responsible in U.S. courts for alleged atrocities committed abroad. On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney ruled the case can proceed to a jury trial.
"Unocal is going to have to stand before a jury of 12 people and defend the despicable conduct which literally destroyed the lives of tens of thousands," plaintiffs' attorney Dan Stormer said.
Daniel Petrocelli, Unocal's lead attorney, said Chaney's ruling made it unclear how the case would proceed. But he said Unocal also would now seek to have "false allegations" regarding the dead baby tossed from the suit, along with certain other aspects of the case.
In her decision, Chaney rejected Unocal's arguments that the case be dismissed because the company's subsidiaries should have been the legal targets. Unocal also has denied that human rights abuses occurred during the project.
Earlier this year, Chaney sided with Unocal when she ruled that the company's overseas subsidiaries, which built and operate the pipeline, should have been sued instead, because they were real entities that could be held liable. The statute of limitations to sue the subsidiaries involved in the project has expired.
Unocal had argued that the case should be dismissed following Chaney's earlier ruling.
On Tuesday, Chaney ruled that the plaintiffs could pursue their case before a jury under a legal theory that the subsidiaries acted as Unocal's agents.
Petrocelli said he believed "the jury would find exactly the same thing" as the judge had previously - that Unocal was not responsible for the alleged actions of Myanmar's soldiers. The country's military dictatorship has been criticized internationally for its human rights record, which includes the detainment of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The case was first filed in federal court in Los Angeles in 1996. A federal judge found that Unocal had no liability and dismissed the suit, which prompted the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in state court.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reinstated the federal case in 2002. Unocal argued in June 2003 that the federal case wrongly relied on the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for human rights abuses that occur overseas.
The 9th Circuit withheld judgment while the obscure law was being considered in a separate case by the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the high court ruled that certain types of cases involving violations of international law can be pursued in federal courts under the act.
The federal appeals court has not yet ruled on whether the Unocal case can proceed. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have re-filed their federal case to include Unocal's subsidiaries as defendants.
By Paul Chavez