WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court intervened Monday in a lawsuit over the role of Mercedes-Benz in the Dirty War that befell Argentina after a 1976 military coup overthrew the government of President Isabel Peron.
The 22 plaintiffs were workers, or are relatives of workers, at the Gonzalez-Catan plant operated by Mercedes-Benz Argentina. They sued the automaker's parent, DaimlerChrysler, alleging that the company collaborated with state security forces to kidnap, detain, torture and murder during the seven-year Dirty War. The Germany-based company has been known as Daimler AG since selling off Chrysler Group in 2007.
Mercedes-Benz allegedly labeled workers as subversives, passed the information to the military dictatorship and opened its plant to periodic raids by state security forces.
The company also hired the brutal police station chief, Ruben Lavallen, to act as Mercedes-Benz's security chief, and gave him legal representation when he was "accused of human rights abuses," according to the workers' complaint.
Relying on military power let Mercedes-Benz quell a strike and restore maximum production to the plant, workers said.
Though a federal judge dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction, the 9th Circuit decided in May 2011 that DaimlerChrysler is subject to personal jurisdiction in California because of its Mercedes-Benz USA subsidiary.
The Delaware-based arm of Mercedes-Benz is the single largest supplier of luxury vehicles to the California market, and has three offices and centers throughout California. Its sales in the Golden State alone accounted for 2.4 percent of DaimlerChrysler's total worldwide sales at the time the lawsuit was filed.
These facts establish the required minimum necessary contacts for jurisdiction, according to the ruling.
"To the ordinary American, and certainly to us, it would seem odd, indeed, if the manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, which are sold in California in vast numbers by its American subsidiary, for use on the state's streets and highways, could not be required to appear in the federal courts of that state," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-judge panel. "Mercedes-Benz cars are ubiquitous in California, and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, required to display the signage mandated by DCAG, have a highly visible presence."
The court's grant of certiorari in this case comes just days after the Supreme Court refused to let a group of refugees sue foreign oil giants in the United States over their alleged role in atrocities committed in Nigeria.
In affirming dismissal of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. on narrow grounds, the justices highlighted the presumption against extraterritorial application, which ensures "that United States law governs domestically but does not rule the world."