* Shell accused of aiding Nigerian human rights abuses
* Reach of 1789 law used to sue corporations
* Supreme Court's ruling expected by the end of June
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, Feb 28 A number of Supreme
Court justices expressed skepticism on Tuesday that corporations
can be sued in the United States for alleged complicity in human
rights abuses abroad, a case with important financial, legal and
The high court during arguments considered limiting the
reach of a 1789 U.S. law that was largely dormant for nearly two
centuries, but used in the past 20 years by foreign victims to
sue multinational corporations for abuses committed overseas.
The court's conservatives voiced concern that allowing such
lawsuits violated international law, that it created tensions
with foreign nations and that the U.S. law only applied to acts
by individuals, not to corporations.
The case before the court involved a lawsuit by 12 Nigerians
who alleged that Royal Dutch Shell Plc helped the
Nigerian government crack down on oil exploration protests
between 1992 and 1995 through torture, executions and crimes
"What business does a case like that have in the United
States?" Justice Samuel Alito asked Paul Hoffman, the California
attorney who argued for the plaintiffs.
"There's no connection to the United States whatsoever,"
Alito said. "This kind of lawsuit only creates international
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the decisive vote
on the court divided with five conservatives and four liberals,
questioned whether international law recognized corporate
responsibility for the alleged offenses in the lawsuit.
The case has been closely watched by corporations concerned
about long and costly litigation in the United States and by
human rights advocates who say businesses can be held
accountable in U.S. courts for their alleged role in torture,
executions or other abuses committed abroad.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress could always amend the
law to make clear that it covered corporations.
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."
DEFENDING LAW'S REACH
The Obama administration supported Hoffman. Deputy Solicitor
General Edwin Kneedler argued that a U.S. appeals court in New
York erred in ruling that a corporation never can be liable
under the U.S. law.
But Kennedy questioned Kneedler about the government's
"Suppose an American corporation commits human trafficking
with U.S. citizens in the United States. Under your view, the
U.S. corporation could be sued in any country in the world,"
Representing Shell at the arguments, Kathleen Sullivan, a
former dean of the Stanford Law School in California, said the
post-World War Two Nuremberg tribunals established that only
individuals can be held liable for human rights violatons.
She said corporate officers can be held responsible for
human rights abuses, but that nations around the world have long
treated corporations and individuals differently.
Some of the court's liberals questioned Sullivan's argument
that only persons can be held accountable for human rights
abuses. "Where do you find that in international law?" Justice
Elena Kagan asked.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether a corporation could be
held liable in certain circumstances, such as conduct involving
piracy or slavery.
"What about slavery? That seems like contrary to
international law norms, basic law norms, it could be committed
by an individual. And why, if it could be committed by an
individual, could it not also be committed by a corporation in
violation of an international norm?" Breyer asked Sullivan.
The British, Dutch and German governments supported Shell,
as did various multinational corporations and the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce business lobby.
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 pending.
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 Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case by the end
The Supreme Court case is Esther Kiobel v. Royal Dutch
Petroleum Co, No. 10-1491.