Ninth Circuit Upholds Corporate Liability Under the Alien Tort Statute

Almost one year ago, we wrote about the long history of Sarei v. Rio Tinto, an Alien Tort Statute ("ATS") case filed in 2000 against Rio Tinto Plc involving allegations stemming from the company’s mining operations on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Last week, on October 25, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims for genocide and war crimes.  In doing so, the Court upheld corporate liability under the ATS.  

Notably, this decision comes shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision to grant plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. In Kiobel, the Second Circuit held that corporations are not proper defendants in ATS cases. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and emphasized the importance of looking to the statute’s "language and purpose." The Court noted that it had previously held that Torture Victim Protection Act’s "express language and documented legislative history reflected congressional intent to limit liability under that statute to individuals." (citing Bowoto v. Chevron, 621 F.3d 1116 (2010)). In comparison, the Court found that

The ATS contains no such language and has no such legislative history to suggest that corporate liability was excluded and that only liability of natural persons was intended. We therefore find no basis for holding that there is any such statutory limitation.

The Ninth Circuit thus joins the D.C. Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, and the Eleventh Circuit in upholding corporate liability under the ATS. In response to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, one legal observer stated, "[t]his opinion reiterates that Kiobel is an outlier." 

Notably, one year ago, the case had been referred to a mediator “to explore the possibility of mediation.” Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 02-cv-56256 (9th Cir. October 26, 2010). In February 2011, the case was returned to the en banc Court. Sarei, 02-cv-56256 (9th Cir. February 11, 2011).

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