WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - The US. Supreme Court agreed
on Monday to decide if companies can be held liable in the
United States for international human rights law violations, a
case about allegations that Royal Dutch Shell Plc helped
Nigeria violently suppress oil exploration protests in the
The justices said they would hear an appeal by a group of
Nigerians who argue they should be allowed to proceed with
their lawsuit accusing the oil company of aiding the Nigerian
government in human rights violations between 1992 and 1995.
The plaintiffs, families of seven Nigerians who were
executed by a former military government for protesting Shell's
exploration and development, sought to hold the company liable
under a 1789 U.S. law called the Alien Tort Statute.
A U.S. appeals court in New York dismissed the lawsuit on
the grounds that corporations cannot be held liable in this
country for violations of international human rights law.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court,
arguing that review was necessary because appeals courts around
the nation have issued conflicting rulings on the issue of
corporate liability under the more than 200-year-old law.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the
Shell case early next year, with a decision likely by June.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the case raised a host of
issues of national and international importance.
The Alien Tort Statute states that U.S. courts shall have
jurisdiction over any civil lawsuit "by an alien for a tort
only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty
of the United States."
'ONLY OPPORTUNITY' TO DETER UNLAWFUL CONDUCT
"For the victims of human rights violations, such cases
often provide the only opportunity to obtain any remedy for
their suffering and to deter future unlawful conduct," attorney
Paul Hoffman said in the appeal.
He said the ruling created blanket immunity for companies
engaged or complicit in universally condemned human rights
violations, including torture and executions.
In the Shell case, the lawsuit accused the company of
violations related to the 1995 hangings of the activist Ken
Saro-Wiwa and eight other protesters by Nigeria's then-military
Shell has denied the allegations that it was involved in
human rights abuses in Nigeria.
Shell's attorney, Rowan Wilson, told the Supreme Court that
the appeals court had been correct in dismissing the lawsuit
and that further review of the case was unwarranted.
The Alien Tort Statute allows foreigners to sue in U.S.
courts over international law violations.
It has been increasingly used in the last 20 years by
plaintiffs to sue corporations for alleged involvement in human
rights abuses overseas. There have been a number of recent U.S.
appeals court rulings on the issue.
In one case, Indonesia villagers accused Exxon Mobil Corp's
security forces of murder, torture and other abuses between
1999 and 2001 while in another case Firestone tire company was
accused of using child labor in Liberia.
Many of the lawsuits over the past 20 years have been
unsuccessful, though there have been a handful of settlements,
attorneys involved in the Shell case said.
The Supreme Court also agreed to hear another case that
raised a similar issue. The court will consider whether the
Torture Victim Protection Act applied only to persons or also
applied to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The case involved a lawsuit against the PLO by the widow
and sons of a U.S. citizen, Azzam Rahim, a Palestinian born and
raised in the West Bank, who allegedly was tortured and killed
in 1995 at a prison in Jericho. The PLO has denied the
The Supreme Court cases are Esther Kiobel v. Royal Dutch
Petroleum Co, No. 10-1491, and Asid Mohamad v. Jibril Rajoub,
In Kiobel, for the petitioners: Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun
DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman.
For the respondents: Rowan Wilson of Cravath, Swaine &
In Mohamad, for the petitioners: Robert Tolchin of The
Berkman Law Office
For the respondents: Laura Ferguson of Miller & Chevalier
(Reporting by James Vicini)
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