(Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday refused to hold Occidental Petroleum Corp and a security contractor legally responsible for alleged complicity in a 1998 military bombing of a Colombian village that killed 17 people, including six children.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California said victims’ families could not pursue claims against Occidental and Florida-based AirScan Inc under two U.S. human rights laws, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act.
Writing for a 2-1 majority, Circuit Judge Jay Bybee cited a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, in finding that the ATS did not apply because the underlying conduct occurred “exclusively” in Colombia. He also said the torture victim law does not apply to corporate defendants.
In addition, Bybee said “international comity” justified dismissal, citing a 2004 State Department memo that said letting Colombian courts handle the matter advanced U.S. foreign policy.
“The crimes plaintiffs allege are abominable, but the facts of this case nonetheless favor applying adjudicatory comity,” Bybee wrote.
Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta joined Bybee’s 65-page decision, which upheld a 2010 lower court ruling. Both judges were appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients are “very disappointed” and plan to ask a larger appeals court panel to revisit the case. He said the 9th Circuit viewed Kiobel differently in an earlier case concerning Nestle SA.
Occidental did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit arose from a Dec. 13, 1998 cluster bomb attack by Colombia’s air force on Santo Domingo, a village near an Occidental oil pipeline that was a target of leftist rebels.
Occidental and AirScan were accused of having provided the military with financial and logistical support. Both denied wrongdoing, and Houston-based Occidental has said it did not provide lethal aid.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, who normally works in Seattle, dissented from Wednesday’s decision, and would have let the plaintiffs replead their ATS claims.
He said the majority “needlessly announces novel standards that will thwart the ability of not only these plaintiffs, but also of every other alien who seeks to hold a U.S. corporation accountable for atrocities committed abroad.”
Zilly was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan.
The case is Mujica et al v. AirScan Inc et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 10-55515.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown