The success of the lawsuit depends largely on the judges' interpretation of a 231-year-old tort law.
The US Supreme Court has signaled that it will dismiss a lawsuit accusing Nestle USA and Cargill of practicing and benefiting from child labor overseas.
According to the New York Times, the case was brought by six citizens of Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa. Together, the plaintiffs allege that they were traded as children, sold abroad and forced to work in company-affiliated mines and plantations.
"Plaintiffs are ex-child slaves seeking compensation from two US companies that maintain child slavery and forced labor systems in their Ivory Coast supply chain in order to gain a competitive advantage in the US," said Paul H. Hoffman. an attorney to work with the plaintiffs.
However, both Nestle and Cargill have claimed that they are not actively enabling child labor and are in fact conducting extensive supply chain audits to ensure the integrity of their operations.
"The plaintiffs allegedly bring up something terrible: The locals in Mali sold them as children to an Ivorian farm where guards forced them to work," said lawyer Neal K. Katyal.
The Supreme Court building. Photo by Mark Thomas, courtesy of Pixabay.
Katyal didn't seem to be denying that Nestle and Cargill might have benefited from human trafficking, although he failed to notice that the companies hadn't tried to employ slaves.
"The defendants," said Katyal, "are not the locators, not the overseers, and not the farm."
The New York Times notes that plaintiffs filed their complaint under the Alien Tort Statute.
This law, written in 1789, enables federal district courts "to hear any civil lawsuit brought by a foreigner solely for tort that is contrary to international law or treatment of the United States."
While the Alien Tort Statute was seldom cited until the late 20th century, several court cases have resulted in the Supreme Court limiting the scope of the law. For example, the judges have ruled that the law does not apply in cases where misconduct has been committed almost entirely abroad, or in cases where the defendant is a foreign company.
In a letter in Kiobel against Royal Dutch Petroleum, Attorney General John G. Roberts said that "even minimal contact" with the United States is not enough to successfully bring a lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute.
"Even if the claims touch and affect United States territory, they must do so with sufficient force to dispel the presumption of extraterritorial application," wrote Roberts on behalf of the majority in the court.
To that end, Justice Samuel Alito asked plaintiffs in the Nestle and Cargill cases if they really believed or could prove that the defense was really aware of their plight.
"After 15 years, is it too much to ask for you to specifically claim that the defendants […] standing before us specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or agricultural cooperatives with which they did business? was applied? " Asked Alito.
While Alito's questioning indicated a certain skepticism about the plaintiffs' case, he also asked whether Katyal's arguments in favor of extended corporate protection under the Alien Tort Statute were well founded.
“They would say,” asked Alito Katyal, “that the victims, who could not possibly have recovered in the courts of the country in which they were held, should be thrown out of court in the United States, where this company is located . " Headquarters and doing business? "
Katyal, the New York Times says, said there are or should be ways to hold companies that enable child labor liable – but the 1789 Act isn't one of them. He suggested no alternative.
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