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Supreme Court to rehear arguments on corporate liability for human rights violations

The US Supreme Court announced Monday that they will rehear arguments [order, PDF] in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum [docket], a case dealing with corporate liability for human rights violations occurring overseas. The court originally took the case in October and heard arguments [JURIST report] last week to determine whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] for alleged torture and international law violations. In a brief order Monday, the court "directed [the parties] to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: 'Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute ... allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.'" The court set deadlines of May 3 for the petitioners' brief, June 4 for the respondents' brief and June 29 for the petitioners' reply brief, meaning that the case will not be reheard until next term.

While accepting that international law is the proper authority to define human rights violations, the petitioners, Nigerian plaintiffs suing foreign-based oil companies, argued last week that domestic US common law should fill in the blank in ATS over who could actually be sued for such atrocities. The US government sided with the petitioners, with Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler providing the additional argument that international law does not independently foreclose foreign corporate liability the way that it immunizes a foreign government from liability for official wrongdoings. The respondent oil companies argued that international law is wholly controlling in such a situation and that domestic US common law has no bearing on the proceedings. Respondents pressed the fact that not only does international law not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses, but the world community has never recognized corporate liability for the misdeeds of individuals: "No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection." While the issue in the case was supposed to focus on "the narrow issue of whether a corporation can ever be held liable for violating fundamental human rights norms under the Alien Tort Statute," the court frequently pushed petitioners on the specific point of whether Congress intended ATS to permit suits by aliens against aliens for overseas acts.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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