The justices ruled 8-1 that an appeals court improperly let the lawsuit against the food companies go forward. The companies had been sued by a group of six adult citizens of Mali who claimed they were taken from their country as children and forced to work on cocoa farms in neighboring Cote D’Ivoire.
“Although respondents’ injuries occurred entirely overseas, the Ninth Circuit held that respondents could sue in federal court because the defendant corporations allegedly made ‘major operational decisions’ in the United States. The Ninth Circuit erred by allowing this suit to proceed,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a majority opinion for the court.
The High Court’s decision potentially makes it much more difficult for foreigners to bring lawsuits to U.S. federal courts over international law violations.
In the suit, the plaintiffs, six former child slaves in Mali, sought to sue Nestle and Cargill on the grounds that they had turned a blind eye to instances of child labor on cocoa farms.
The former child slaves alleged that the two companies, which worked with independent contractors, “knew or should have known” that their product was produced using child labor.
The case involves a law enacted by the very first Congress in 1789, the Alien Tort Statute, which permits foreign citizens to sue in U.S. courts for human rights abuses. But Thomas said this case wasn’t properly in U.S. courts.
Justice Thomas wrote that because “nearly all the conduct that they say aided and abetted forced labor — providing training, fertilizer, tools, and cash to overseas farms — occurred in Ivory Coast,” it is not possible for the case to be heard in the United States.
Paul Hoffman, attorney for the six Malians, said he was disappointed by the ruling but says it is not the end of the case. He intends to ask a lower court to be allowed to amend the group’s lawsuit and allege that Cargill and Nestle “controlled the system of forced labor from the United States.”
The case was one of a series of cases in which non-U.S. citizens attempted to use violations of international law, particularly, human rights violations, to sue in U.S. courts. In the other two cases, Holocaust survivors and their descendants asked the court to allow lawsuits against Germany and Hungary to proceed in American courts. In both, the court refused.