Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.

Summarized by:

  • Court: U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted
  • Area(s) of Law: Corporations
  • Date Filed: February 28, 2012
  • Case #: 10-1491
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Court Below: 621 F.3d 111 (2d Cir. 2010).

(1) Whether the question of corporate civil tort liability under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”), 28 U.S.C. §1350, is a question of merits or one of subject matter jurisdiction; and (2) whether, like any other private party, a corporation may be held liable under the ATS for committing a tort, such as torture or genocide, in violation of the law of nations, or whether it is immune from liability.

The ATS provides jurisdiction over tort actions brought by aliens for violations of the law of nations including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nigerian nationals filed a class action under the ATS claiming that three different oil corporations enlisted the Nigerian government to use its armed forces to suppress resistance to oil exploration and in so doing committed human rights violations.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed claims against corporate defendants in part, and certified an entire order for interlocutory appeal. The Second Circuit held that the ATS did not confer jurisdiction on claims against corporations since customary international law did not recognize corporate liability as a universal norm. Therefore, corporate defendants were not subject to liability under the ATS or under customary international law. The same court denied a petition for rehearing as well as a petition for a rehearing en banc. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the two issues presented above.

Petitioners argue that the violations alleged in this case, including torture and extra juridical killings, fall squarely with in the grant of jurisdiction by the ATS to federal courts to redress violations of international norms. The Second Circuit erred by treating the issue of corporate liability as one of subject matter jurisdiction because it is a question of merits. The Second Circuit also misinterpreted Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain which does not support the exclusion of corporate defendants from tort liability. If the reverse were true, the ATS would be unable to fulfill its purpose of redressing crimes committed against humanity if they were perpetrated by corporations.

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