Today, in Nestle v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled against six former child slaves who sued Nestle and Cargill, two major corporations, for allegedly aiding and abetting their enslavement.
The plaintiffs in Nestle allege that they were trafficked from Mali to the Ivory Coast as children, then forced to work on cacao plantations under abominable conditions without pay. Nestle and Cargill didn’t own these plantations, but purchased their cacao and provided them with “financial and technical assistance.” Plaintiffs sued them under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which gives federal courts the power to hear lawsuits filed by foreigners alleging a violation of international law.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ majority opinion did not address corporate liability because it wasn’t necessary to resolve the case. He held that plaintiffs’ lawsuit focuses primarily on conduct that occurred overseas—the enslavement of children in the Ivory Coast. The court has already prohibited “extraterritorial application of the ATS.” This precedent, Thomas wrote, required the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. But in three separate opinions, five justices declared that domestic corporations can be sued under the ATS, thus handing a narrow loss to a half-dozen plaintiffs while opening the door to future litigation against corrupt, abusive, and lawless businesses.
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