Norex Petroleum Ltd. won reinstatement of a $1 billion lawsuit accusing billionaires Leonard Blavatnik and Victor Vekselberg of using gunmen and corrupt courts to steal a controlling stake in a Siberian oil field.
Norex claims Blavatnik, Vekselberg and others illegally took control of ZAO Yugraneft, a company once valued at $500 million that owns an oil field in western Siberia. Norex sued in New York state court in March 2011 after a federal judge threw out the case, saying it should be heard in Russia. State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten in September 2012 also dismissed the lawsuit, ruling it was filed too late, and Norex asked the Court of Appeals in Albany to reinstate the case.
A unanimous Court of Appeals ruled today that the state case was filed within six months of the decision in the federal suit, and was timely under statutes of limitation in New York and Alberta, where Norex is based.
Norex “has been denied its day in court for a long time,” Barry R. Ostrager, a lawyer for Norex, said in a telephone interview. At issue is “a lawless appropriation of a lucrative oil field by these Russian oligarchs utilizing corrupt judicial proceedings in Russia,” he said.
Ostrager last month urged the appeals court to reinstate the case, saying the original claim was filed in federal court in 2002, soon after the alleged activity. Owen C. Pell, an attorney for Blavatnik and Vekselberg, told the court that Norex was forum-shopping after losing litigation in the U.S. and Russia.
Blavatnik is the world’s 46th-richest man with a net worth of $17.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His former college classmate, Vekselberg, ranks 68th with a net worth of $14.9 billion.
Blavatnik said in a statement that the appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge to address the “numerous remaining grounds for dismissing the case.”
“The assertions in Norex’s lawsuit are not only untrue,” he said. “They are merely a tired rehash of the same preposterous claims Norex has been unsuccessfully recycling for the past 12 years in both U.S. and Russian courts.”
Fatigue-wearing militiamen armed with AK-47 assault rifles stormed Yugraneft’s corporate offices in June 2001, acting on the orders of Blavatnik, Vekselberg and others and took control of the company, according to the lawsuit.
The two billionaires bribed Russian officials to influence a lawsuit in that country that sought to reduce Norex’s 60 percent stake in Yugraneft, according to the complaint. A Russian court in 2002 cut Norex’s stake to 20 percent.
Norex also accused TNK-BP, a joint venture between BP and the billionaires who control Yugraneft, of profiting from the scheme at its expense. OAO Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, bought TNK-BP in March 2013 for $55 billion.
BP didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the ruling.
The case is Norex Petroleum Ltd. v. Blavatnik, 650591/2011, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).