U.S. Supreme Court judges question human rights claims against Nestle and Cargill

A person climbs the stairs of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on November 10, 2020.

Hannah McKay | Reuters

U.S. Supreme Court judges on Tuesday cautioned against dismissing lawsuits against U.S. companies for alleged foreign human rights violations, but indicated they could drop a case accusing Cargill and a subsidiary of Nestle SA of knowingly helping cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire. maintaining slavery.

The two companies are asking the nine judges to reverse a lower-level court ruling that allowed a lawsuit filed against them in 2005 on behalf of former slaves in Mali to continue.

The case concerns an American law of 1789 called the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-U.S. citizens to seek redress from U.S. courts in certain cases. The business community has long sought to limit corporate liability under this law.

Some judges questioned whether the lawsuit really made it clear that company officials knew that the farms in question used child slavery.

“After 15 years, it’s too much to ask to specifically claim that the defendants … who are here before us specifically knew that forced child labor was used on the farms or agricultural cooperatives with which they did business?” asked Conservative Justice Samuel Alito.

The lawsuits targeted Swiss-based U.S. subsidiary Nestle, the world’s largest food producer and commodity trader, Cargill, one of the largest privately held U.S. companies.

The plaintiffs accused the companies of facilitating human rights abuses through their active participation in the purchase of Ivory Coast cocoa and killed the use of slave labor on farms, despite being aware of the practice of keeping cocoa prices low.

The Los Angeles federal district court twice dismissed the lawsuit, most recently in 2017. That court found that the claims were barred by recent Supreme Court rulings that made it difficult for plaintiffs to sue U.S. courts for alleged overseas violations.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals revived the allegations in 2018, citing allegations that companies provided “personal spending money” to local farmers to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa. District 9 found that the payments were similar to kickbacks and that the low price of cocoa depended on the child’s slave labor.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests supported the two companies in the case, as did President Donald Trump’s administration.

In 2013 and 2018, the Supreme Court restricted plaintiffs ’ability to sue companies under U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute for overseas human rights violations. The court stated in those judgments that there must be a close connection between the alleged conduct and actions in the United States. But the court has not conclusively ruled that companies can never be sued under this law.

Since the April 5-8 judgment in 2018, the court has shifted to the right with President Donald Trump appointing Conservative Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.