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Shell Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Bar Human-Rights Suit

Publication Date: 
February 28, 2012
Bloomberg News

Professor Kathleen Sullivan and professor Jeffrey L. Fisher were both quoted in the following Bloomberg News article covering a pair of torture cases being heard by the Supreme Court.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the company can’t be sued by Nigerians seeking damages for torture and murders committed by their government in the early 1990s.

The high court in Washington is considering whether companies are exempt from two statutes imposing liability for human-rights violations. Shell, Europe’s biggest oil company, argued today that the Alien Tort Statute, which dates to 1789, can’t be used to sue corporations. The Nigerian plaintiffs claim there’s nothing in the law that limits liability to individuals.

“We do not urge a rule of corporate impunity here,” said Kathleen Sullivan, a lawyer for Shell. “Corporate officers are liable for human-rights violations and for those they direct among their employees. There can also be suits under state law or the domestic laws of nations. But there may not be ATS federal common-law causes of action against corporations.”


“So far, I think I have to say that you are on a weak wicket,” Justice Steven Breyer told Jeffrey Fisher, Mohamad’s lawyer.

Fisher argued that if the court allows the Kiobel case to go forward and bars his client, it would result in foreign torture victims having more rights in U.S. courts than U.S. citizens.

“It would indeed be absurd to imagine Congress stepping in and passing a statute saying, ‘if you’re an American citizen, I’m sorry, you’re out of luck,’” Fisher told the justices. “But if you happen to be lucky enough to be an alien and never having tried to be a citizen in this country, go ahead and bring the case in our courts.”