Over the past 15 years, there has been a sharp rise in lawsuits brought against American companies, as well as foreign companies with a substantial U.S. presence, that are premised on alleged personal or environmental injuries occurring abroad. These cases raise the question of whether U.S. courts should be the venue for cases concerning conduct occurring outside the territory of the United States. They have also been characterized by controversial and abusive tactics by plaintiffs and their lawyers.
Many of those transnational lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. by plaintiffs’ class action firms, public interest attorneys and non-governmental organizations. Some have been filed in federal courts under the 200-year old Alien Tort Statute (ATS), while many more have been brought in state courts under common law theories of liability.
These cases raise several concerns. One is the use of U.S. courts for adjudicating disputes that occurred outside of the country. It is a generally established principle that U.S. courts should not hear cases involving foreign conduct unless there is a significant nexus to the United States. By undermining this principle, these cases set a precedent that could be used to expose Americans to litigation in foreign courts over conduct occurring in the United States.
Equally troubling are the tactics used in these cases. According to ILR’s study Think Globally, Sue Locally, transnational cases are characterized by a number of features, including aggressive media tactics, organized protests and boycotts of corporate defendants, political pressure and, in some cases, outright fraud and abuse by plaintiffs’ lawyers. In the major transnational case against Chevron in Ecuador, four federal courts have found the proceedings tainted by fraud.
In April 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum that claims of wrongful conduct on foreign soil cannot be brought in U.S. courts under the ATS. This ruling has substantially limited the use of the ATS in transnational cases, but does not deter cases brought under state common law. A complete list of lawsuits against corporations under the Alien Tort Statute can be found here.