Supreme Court to Review Corporate Liability Under the Alien Tort Statute

On Monday, October 17, the U.S. Supreme Court granted plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. In Kiobel, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that corporations cannot be sued under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) for violations of customary international law. The question of corporate liability under the ATS was left unsettled by the Supreme Court in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004) and the Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Kiobel was widely anticipated. 

Cases brought by plaintiffs in the United States under the ATS represent the largest body of domestic jurisprudence on corporate responsibility for violations of international human rights law.  Kiobel itself is one of a series of cases arising from claims that Royal Dutch Petroleum was complicit in human rights abuses against the Ogoni people in Nigeria. Three related cases (the Wiwa cases) settled on the eve of trial in June 2009 for a disclosed settlement of $15.5 million. 

The September 2010 decision in Kiobel was suggested by some legal scholars to be the beginning of the end for ATS litigation again corporate defendants. Since the Second Circuit’s ruling, however, the Seventh Circuit and the D.C. Circuit have both issued decisions finding that corporate liability is proper under the ATS. The Eleventh Circuit has also upheld corporate liability under the ATS. 

The Supreme Court also granted certiorari in Mohamed v. Rajoub, in which the D.C. Circuit held that non-natural persons were not proper defendants under the Torture Victims Protection Act. In Mohamed, plaintiffs had sought damages against the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority. In its orders granting certiorari, the Supreme Court directed that Kiobel and Mohamed be argued in tandem.

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