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The Alien Tort Statute and Corporate Liability: Looking Ahead to the Supreme Court Decision in Kiobel

By: Maria Flo­ren­cia Lib­rizzi[*]

The Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of lit­i­ga­tion seek­ing to hold U.S. cor­po­ra­tions account­able under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) for aid­ing and abet­ting human rights abus­es over­seas. In Sep­tem­ber 2010, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit held in Kio­bel v. Roy­al Dutch Petro­le­um that the statute did not apply to cor­po­ra­tions.[1]  Since then, sev­er­al oth­er cir­cuits have ruled oth­er­wise, lead­ing the Supreme Court to grant cer­tio­rari in Kio­bel in Octo­ber 2011. Oral argu­ment is sched­uled for Tues­day, Feb­ru­ary 28.[2]

The out­come of this case will be pro­found­ly impor­tant. If the Court affirms the Sec­ond Circuit’s major­i­ty opin­ion, alien vic­tims will no longer be able to sue cor­po­ra­tions under the ATS. In many cas­es cor­po­ra­tions will be free to prof­it from over­seas human rights vio­la­tions, while safe­guard­ing their assets against com­pen­sa­tion claims.[3]

Look­ing ahead to the Court’s deci­sion, I sum­ma­rize below the evolv­ing jurispru­dence of the ATS, includ­ing the cir­cuit split over the statute’s applic­a­bil­i­ty to cor­po­ra­tions and the mens rea stan­dard for aid­ing and abet­ting lia­bil­i­ty. If the Court lim­its itself to the Ques­tions Pre­sent­ed in the cer­tio­rari peti­tion, it will decide only whether the ATS applies to cor­po­ra­tions. How­ev­er, the Court may also resolve oth­er points of con­tention among the cir­cuits, includ­ing the mens rea stan­dard for aid­ing and abet­ting lia­bil­i­ty. After review­ing the case law, I con­clude with sev­er­al arguments—instrumental, descrip­tive, and policy—in favor of rec­og­niz­ing cor­po­rate lia­bil­i­ty under the ATS.

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