Feb. 25, 2012
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court will weigh next week whether corporations can be sued in the United States for suspected complicity in human rights abuses abroad, in a case being closely watched by businesses concerned about long and costly litigation.
The high court on Tuesday will consider the reach of a 1789 U.S. law that had been largely dormant until 1980, when human rights lawyers started using it, at first to sue foreign government officials.
Then, over the next 20 years, the lawyers used the law to target multinational corporations.
The case before the court pits the Obama administration and human rights advocates against large companies and foreign governments over allegations that Royal Dutch Shell Plc helped Nigeria crush oil exploration protests in the 1990s.
Administration attorneys and lawyers for the plaintiffs contend corporations can be held accountable in U.S. courts for committing or assisting foreign governments in torture, executions or other human rights abuses.
Attorneys for corporations argue that only individuals, such as company employees or managers involved in the abuse, can be sued, a position adopted by a U.S. appeals court in New York. Other courts ruled corporations can be held liable.
The justices will hear an appeal by a group of Nigerians who argue they should be allowed to proceed with a lawsuit accusing Shell of aiding the Nigerian government in human rights violations between 1992 and 1995.
California attorney Paul Hoffman, who will argue on behalf of the plaintiffs, said corporations, under the 1789 law, were permissible defendants and that corporate civil liability was a general principle of international law.
“Businesses involved in genocide, crimes against humanity or other serious human rights violations deserve no exemption from tort liability,” he said in a brief filed with the court.
NO EXEMPTION FOR GENOCIDE
The Obama administration supported the corporate liability argument, as did international human rights organizations and Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Representing Shell at the arguments, Kathleen Sullivan, a former dean of the Stanford Law School in California, said U.S. and international law do not allow corporate liability for the alleged offenses. She said the post-World War Two Nuremberg tribunals covered prosecutions of individuals, not corporations.
She warned of the consequences of allowing such lawsuits.
“Even a meritless … suit against a corporation can take years to resolve,” she said in a brief, adding that corporations may reduce their operations in less-developed nations where such abuses tend to arise.
The British, Dutch and German governments supported Shell and said it violates international law to apply a U.S. law from more than 200 years ago to acts that take place in other countries and have no connection to the United States.
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