* Arguments to be heard in court's upcoming term
* Justices direct parties to address broader issue of law's
* Case has pitted companies against human rights groups
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, March 5 The U.S. Supreme Court
said on Monday it would hear arguments next term on
whether an 18th century U.S. law can be used to sue
multinational corporations or others in American courts for
alleged human rights abuses committed abroad.
The justices said in a brief order they would consider
during rearguments in the case whether the 1789 U.S. law at
issue, the Alien Tort Statute, extended to conduct that occurred
within a foreign nation.
The Supreme Court heard arguments last week on a narrower
issue in the case of whether corporations can be sued in the
United States under the law. A number of justices appeared ready
to rule that only individuals, not corporations, can be held
liable under the law.
But several justices during the arguments raised the broader
issue of whether U.S. courts even have jurisdiction to hear such
lawsuits for alleged genocide, war crimes and other abuses
abroad. That will be the focus of next term's arguments.
The case 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 against humanity.
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 foreign
abuses that violate international law.
The justices directed the parties in the case to file briefs
addressing "whether and under what circumstances" the Alien
Tort Statute allowed U.S. courts to recognize international law
violations that occur outside the United States.
The justices ordered that the briefs be submitted in May and
A Supreme Court official said the new arguments in the case
would take place in the upcoming term that begins in October. A
decision is likely early next year.
The British, Dutch and German governments supported Shell,
as did various multinational corporations and the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce business lobby, while the Obama administration and
human rights groups backed the Nigerian plaintiffs.
The 1789 law had been largely dormant for nearly two
centuries, but has been used in the past 20 years by foreign
victims to sue corporations and others for alleged abuses
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.
Many of the lawsuits have been unsuccessful, though there
have been a handful of settlements, lawyers in the case said.
Many of the cases, having dragged on for years, are still
The Supreme Court case is Esther Kiobel v. Royal Dutch
Petroleum Co, No. 10-1491.