(Reuters) - The 33-word Alien Tort Statute, at the center of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, was enacted by the First Congress in 1789. It reads: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.
It lay essentially dormant for decades. Then, in 1978, a U.S. lawyer named Peter Weiss used the statute to bring a case against former Paraguayan police inspector Americo Pena-Irala over the torture and killing of Joelito Filartiga. In a ruling two years later, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said U.S. courts had jurisdiction and Pena-Irala was ordered to pay $10.4 million in damages to Filartiga's family.
The damages were never paid, but the case signaled that U.S. courts were open to victims of human rights abuses around the world. "Filartiga is to human rights litigants what Brown v. Board of Education was to civil rights litigants," said John Ruggie, the U.N. Special Adviser on Business and Human Rights.
In 1995, the 2nd Circuit issued a ruling in a case against the Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadzic that for the first time found the statute could be extended beyond just government officials to people outside government.
That opened the way for human rights lawyers to bring cases against corporations: In 1996, a lawyer named Paul Hoffman brought a landmark lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute against oil company UNOCAL over abuses by the Myanmar government.
Companies have tended to settle the claims to avoid the expense and the bad PR. "These lawsuits come with a massive cost and are designed to leverage reputational damage on the company in order to extract a huge settlement or judgment," said Brian Quigley, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In the 17 years since the Karadzic ruling, there have been 154 cases against corporations under the statute, according to a database maintained by Jonathan Drimmer, who teaches a course on the Alien Tort Statute at the Georgetown Law Center.
The Supreme Court considered the Alien Tort Statute in 2004, in a case over an abduction in Mexico. Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican, was seeking damages from Jose Francisco Sosa, another Mexican. Alvarez-Machain accused Sosa of capturing him and handing him over to the United States. The court said that Alvarez-Machain's claim was not severe enough to fall within the Alien Tort Statute.
Reporting by Rebecca Hamilton; Editing by Eddie Evans