17 April 2013

Law in Plain English: Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum

Kiobel and others filed a lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) alleging that Royal Dutch Petroleum and other oil companies had an agreement with the Nigerian government to use military force against those protesting oil drilling in Nigeria. The ATS is a one-sentence provision that was passed in 1789 but rarely used until 1980, when it began to be used against torture or other human rights violations. The questions before the Court were: First, whether the ATS applies at all, since the alleged human rights violations took place outside of the United States and within the sovereign territory of another country; and second, if the ATS does apply, whether corporations should be treated like private individuals, and thus subject to tort liability for violations. In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims under the ATS, and nothing in the statute rebuts that presumption. As a result, the ATS does not apply to the  alleged conduct alleged by Kiobel and others. The practical impact of this decision is to significantly limit the future use of the ATS because alleged human rights violations that take place outside of the United States and within the sovereign territory of another country won't be covered.
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