On Monday, a trial court in Ecuador handed down what may be the largest environmental damages award in history: $8.6 billion against California-based Chevron Corp. The lawsuit was filed in 1993 by local farmers and indigenous groups, alleging extensive contamination of surface waters in the Lago Agrio area of the Amazon rainforest. Despite the award, it is uncertain whether Chevron will ever legally be required to pay anything to the plaintiffs in this case.

The plaintiffs are far from realizing any damages for several reasons. First, Chevron has vowed to fight the award through the Ecuadorian court system. Considering that the trial stage took almost 18 years, the appeals process could presumably also take decades. Second, even if the plaintiffs eventually obtain a final judgment form the Ecuadorian courts, Chevron does not have any assets in Ecuador that could be enforced against. Therefore, the plaintiffs will need to convince courts in other countries that the judgment is valid and that Chevron's assets within that country should be seized to satisfy the award. Finally (but related to the last issue), Chevron has already had some success in convincing American courts that the case is fraudulent.

Read more about this case here and here. And here's an interesting article from the San Francisco Chronicle about why the suit did not settle prior to the award.