On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case brought by Nigerian Plaintiffs against a Shell Oil subsidiary. The issue is whether 28 USC §1350, commonly known as the Alien Tort Act, allows foreign plaintiffs to sue US corporations for certain human rights violations.
According to the transcript and media reports, the oral arguments were broad and shifted between the previously mentioned issue to whether United States courts can hear human rights cases where the alleged violations are committed abroad.
The Alien Tort Act states: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
The Act has not been historically used to hold US companies liable in US courts; however, there has been an increased trend to try to use the Act in this manner. Just last July, I highlighted a similar case between Indonesian plaintiffs and Exxon Mobil.
Should the Court hold that US companies can be liable for human rights violations, multinational corporations will potentially face much greater scrutiny and will be forced to make changes to business practices, including how they respond to human rights accusations abroad.
Then again, multinational corporations could get their way, and Congress could eliminate the Alien Tort Act altogether. (Send in the lobbyists…)
The New York Times and ABC News do a fairly good job at chronicling the issue and oral arguments. For those wanting a more in depth account, a full transcript of the oral argument before the Court can be found at the Court’s website.