SCOTUS: Alien Tort Statute Does Not Reach Foreign Acts

Yesterday the Supreme Court decided Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., which significantly limits the reach of the Alien Tort Statute, codified at 28 U. S. C. §1350.  That statute provides:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

Plaintiffs are a group of Nigerian nationals and U.S. residents who sued various corporations under the ATS for aiding and abetting the Nigerian Government in committing various criminal acts, including murder, rape and torture.  The relevant conduct occurred outside the United States.

The Court held that the ATS was subject to the “presumption against extraterritorial application”, which “serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord”.   The Court found nothing in the statute’s text to rebut the presumption.

The Court concluded:

[A]ll the relevant conduct took place outside the United States. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application. … Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.

Notably, the Second Circuit had dismissed the complaint (decision here) on the ground that “the law of nations does not recognize corporate liability”, but SCOTUS affirmed only on the “extraterritorial application” issue that it directed the parties to brief following oral argument.

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