U.S. corporations winning fight over human rights lawsuits

Fri Dec 12, 2014 6:54am EST
 
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 that made it all but impossible to sue foreign companies in U.S. courts for alleged roles in overseas human rights abuses is proving to be a boon for U.S. firms too, court documents show.

In the roughly year and a half since the ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, U.S. companies such as Chiquita Brands International Inc CQB.N, IBM Corp (IBM.N: Quote) and Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote) have successfully invoked the Supreme Court's reasoning to fend off lawsuits alleging they were involved in human rights abuses in South Africa, Colombia and elsewhere.

In the seven cases involving U.S. companies that federal appeals courts have decided since the Supreme Court rulings, corporate defendants have won five, according to a Reuters review of the court documents. Only one ruling was an outright win for plaintiffs.

A similar pattern has played out in lower courts, with judges citing the Kiobel decision in favor of defendants in seven of eight human rights cases involving U.S. companies that have been decided since the ruling

With rulings tending to favor companies, human rights lawyers are thinking twice before filing new lawsuits. The Reuters review shows only one new human rights lawsuit filed against a U.S. company since the ruling came down in April 2013. In the 1990s and 2000s, up to half a dozen cases were filed every year against U.S. or foreign corporations.

Paul Hoffman, a leading Venice, California-based human rights lawyer who argued Kiobel for the plaintiffs, said he has been fighting to keep his existing cases alive rather than planning new ones. He has been presenting legal arguments explaining why the Supreme Court decision does not mean his lawsuits should be dismissed.

"People are waiting to see what the landscape is going to look like," he said.

Lawyers on both sides of the issue say the Supreme Court might yet have to take another case to clarify exactly when U.S. companies can be sued.   Continued...

 
Plaintiff Esther Kiobel (L) joins a protest against Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron