Supreme Court Narrows Application Of Alien Tort Statute

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The Supreme Court recently sharply narrowed the potential application of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows foreign plaintiffs to bring civil actions in U.S. district courts for torts committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., No. 10-1491, 2013 WL 1628935 (Apr. 17, 2013). Foreign plaintiffs traditionally have sought to use the ATS to hold firms liable for alleged human rights abuse committed by foreign governments. Here, a district court dismissed several claims brought by Nigerian nationals who alleged that several non-U.S. oil companies had aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing human rights violations. On interlocutory appeal, the Second Circuit dismissed the entire complaint, reasoning that the law of nations does not recognize corporate liability. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed on different grounds, focusing on when courts can recognize a cause of action under the ATS for violation of the law of nations occurring in a non-U.S. sovereign territory. The Court held that the presumption against extraterritorial jurisdiction applied to claims under the ATS, and nothing in the statute rebutted that presumption; even where claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application, which requires more than mere corporate presence. The Court’s ruling further limits the risk that foreign plaintiffs might expand ATS claims into new industries, including by bringing claims against financial institutions for global financial crime such as fraud and money laundering, or for financing projects during which alleged human rights abuses are committed.