NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 3, 2007

Labor leaders overseas are turning increasingly to an obscure 18th-century law that could for the first time make U.S. companies liable at home for the violent and sometimes murderous actions of their employees around the world.

The lawsuits have set up a showdown over whether boardrooms in the United States should pay big-money verdicts for crimes not prosecuted in countries where corruption and violence are often seen as a cost of doing business.  At least a dozen such cases are ongoing. Among them:

  • Relatives of people killed in an airstrike by the Colombia military say that Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles should pay damages because its security contractor worked with the military to take out leftist terrorists accused of sabotaging Occidental's pipeline operation; the plaintiffs say the attack killed 17 unarmed civilians.
  • Chevron, headquartered in San Francisco, is fighting a lawsuit filed by Nigerians who say the company should be held responsible for the killing of protesters by Nigerian security forces outside a refinery owned by its subsidiary.
  • Del Monte is being sued by five union officials in Guatemala who say they were kidnapped by armed men hired by the Miami corporation's subsidiary and forced to quit their jobs at a banana farm.

All of the lawsuits come under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows citizens of foreign nations to sue in U.S. courts for actions that violate the "law of nations," such as genocide, torture and slavery.  Human rights activists began using the law in the 1980s to sue foreign military leaders accused of repression who had retired in the United States.  Now, those activists have teamed with labor unions here to sue U.S. corporations for oppression of workers in Latin America and Africa.

Source: Alan Gomez, "Foreign workers sue U.S. companies," USA Today, April 2, 2007.

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