* At issue is reach of 1789 US law used to sue corps
* Lawsuit accuses Shell of aiding Nigerian rights abuses
* Ruling expected by the end of June
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, Feb 24 The Supreme Court
will weigh next week whether corporations can be sued
in the United States for suspected complicity in human rights
abuses abroad, in a case being closely
watched by businesses concerned about long and costly
The high court on Tuesday will consider the reach
of a 1789 U.S. law that had been largely dormant until 1980,
when human rights lawyers started using it, at first to sue
foreign government officials. Then, over the next 20 years, the
lawyers used the law to target multinational corporations.
The case before the court pits the Obama
administration and human rights advocates against large
companies and foreign governments over allegations
that Royal Dutch Shell Plc helped Nigeria
crush oil exploration protests in the 1990s.
Administration attorneys and lawyers for the plaintiffs
contend corporations can be held accountable in U.S.
courts for committing or assisting foreign governments in
torture, executions or other human rights abuses.
Attorneys for corporations argue that
only individuals, such as company employees or managers involved
in the abuse, can be sued, a position adopted by a
U.S. appeals court in New York. Other courts ruled corporations
can be held liable.
The justices will hear an appeal by a group of Nigerians who
argue they should be allowed to proceed with a lawsuit
accusing Shell of aiding the Nigerian government in
human rights violations between 1992 and 1995.
California attorney Paul Hoffman, who will argue on behalf of
the plaintiffs, said corporations, under the 1789 law,
were permissible defendants and that corporate civil liability
was a general principle of international law.
"Businesses involved in genocide, crimes against humanity or
other serious human rights violations deserve no exemption from
tort liability," he said in a brief filed with the court.
NO EXEMPTION FOR GENOCIDE
The Obama administration supported the corporate liability
argument, as did international human rights organizations and
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for
Representing Shell at the arguments, Kathleen Sullivan, a
former dean of the Stanford Law School in California, said U.S.
and international law do not allow corporate liability for the
alleged offenses. She said the post-World War Two Nuremberg
tribunals covered prosecutions of individuals, not corporations.
She warned of the consequences of allowing such lawsuits.
"Even a meritless ... suit against a corporation can take
years to resolve," she said in a brief, adding that corporations
may reduce their operations in less-developed nations where
such abuses tend to arise.
The British, Dutch and German governments supported Shell
and said it violates international law to apply a U.S.
law from more than 200 years ago to acts that take
place in other countries and have no connection to the United
Also backing Shell are various multinational
corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobby.
Robin Conrad, head of the group's legal arm, said that if the
Supreme Court upholds corporate liability, "the global business
community will face yet another wave of frivolous and expensive
In the past two decades, more than 120 lawsuits have been
filed in U.S. courts against 59 corporations for alleged
wrongful acts in 60 foreign countries, lawyers in the case said.
Many of the lawsuits have been unsuccessful, though there
have been a handful of settlements, the lawyers said.
Many of the cases, having dragged on for years, are still
Among the cases: Indonesia villagers accused Exxon Mobil
Corp's security forces of murder, torture and other
abuses in 1999-2001; Firestone tire company was accused of using
child labor in Liberia; and Ford Motor Co and other firms
were accused of aiding South Africa's apartheid system.
The Alien Tort Statute from 1789 states that U.S. courts
shall have jurisdiction over any civil lawsuit "by an alien for
a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a
treaty of the United States."
In its first substantive look at the law in 2004, the
Supreme Court ruled it can be used for certain well-established
international law violations, but did not determine who may be
A ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.
The Supreme Court case is Esther Kiobel v. Royal Dutch
Petroleum Co, No. 10-1491.