U.S. court tosses $1.4 billion judgment against former Venezuelan oil minister

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(Reuters) – A federal judge in Texas set aside a $1.4 billion default judgment against a former Venezuelan oil minister, ruling he was not properly notified of the lawsuit, but said the U.S. company that alleged fraud and bribery can move ahead with the case.

Harvest Natural Resources sued Rafael Ramirez and others, alleging it lost millions when Venezuela refused to allow a sale of its oil operations in the country to a buyer it had lined up. It also alleged Ramirez and others sought a $10 million bribe to approve the sale.

In her opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal overturned the default judgment, finding Ramirez’s default “was not willful” and that he had raised defenses including that Harvest waived claims in its sale of Venezuelan operations.

Dane Ball, a partner with law firm Smyser Kaplan & Veselka LLP, which represents Harvest, declined immediate comment.

The lawsuit notice was faulty, Ramirez told the court, because he had fled the United States months before Harvest delivered its claims to his former residence and because it could have served him internationally.

Rosenthal in late 2018 awarded Harvest millions in damages in a default ruling and later tripled the award to $1.4 billion. Harvest alleged it sold its Venezuelan assets for $470 million less than an original offer and later ceased all operations.

The judge, whose order was signed on Tuesday, said Harvest can still bring its claims and set a scheduling hearing for June 25.

Ramirez, who was Venezuela’s oil minister for 12 years and later served as its foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, had sought to have the entire case, as well as the default judgment, thrown out.

Harvest’s suit “is filled with legal and factual errors,” said Ramirez attorney Abbe David Lowell, adding his client looks forward to the chance to defend himself in court.

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