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Supreme Court Rejects Human Rights Case Against Nestle

The justices threw out the case of Six African men claiming Nestle was complicit in the use of child slavery on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that six African men cannot pursue claims that food giants Nestle USA and Cargill aided and abetted their kidnapping, torture and slavery when they were forced to work on cocoa plantations as children.

The justices ruled 8-1 that the Ninth Circuit erred in allowing the case to continue under the Alien Tort Statute, a piece of 18th century legislation that allows foreign individuals to sue in domestic court when the alleged crime is deemed a major violation of international law or treaty.

In the 35-page opinion for the consolidated cases, Nestle USA v. Doe I and Cargill Inc. v. Doe I, Justice Clarence Thomas explained that because the companies made their “major operational decisions” in the U.S., the law known as the ATS did not apply.

He noted nearly all of the allegations of forced labor took place abroad, including activity the six African men say abetted slavery, like the provision of training and equipment or even the cash paid to the Ivory Coast cocoa farms.

“A plaintiff does not plead facts sufficient to support domestic application of the ATS simply by alleging ‘mere corporate presence’ of a defendant,” Thomas wrote. “Pleading general corporate activity is no better.”

A spokesperson for Nestle said Thursday after the ruling was issued that the company “never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged” and that it remained “unwavering” in its commitment to ending child labor in the cocoa industry.

Cargill did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, nearly 60% of the world’s cocoa is produced in the Ivory Coast and nearby Ghana, and estimates from 2018 have pegged about 1.56 million children as being engaged in “hazardous work” in that industry.

During oral arguments at the Supreme Court in December, Nestle’s attorney Neal Katyal emphasized that the focus of the ATS, passed in 1789, was on the injury itself. Though the conditions at the cocoa plantations were undeniably heinous, they were also never endorsed or enforced by Nestle, he said. He successfully argued that liability applies to Nestle because the injuries occurred halfway around the world.

Under the ATS, foreign plaintiffs can bring complaints in U.S. courts if their central grievance meets the high bar of violating international treaties or laws. But when suing a corporation, the waters quickly become murky because corporate liability is a subject that is generally ill-defined.

The case brought by the six Mali men was dismissed by a district court in California in 2017 when the judge found the ATS did not apply. But the Ninth Circuit revived the claims a year later, finding the men had standing to sue because of allegations that Nestle was providing cash kickbacks to farmers who could yield their cocoa crops at rock-bottom prices.

Later in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Jesner v. Arab Bank that any plaintiffs looking to sue companies under the ATS for alleged breaches of human rights need to prove a clear tie between the conduct abroad and a company’s conduct at home.

Thomas wrote Thursday that the African men’s complaint against Nestle and Cargill “would impermissibly seek extraterritorial application of the ATS.”

“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,” he wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter, saying he would have remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

“The court…disposes of these cases by holding that respondents’ complaint seeks extraterritorial application of the ATS, but in my view, we should not decide that question at this juncture,” he wrote. “It is tied to the question whether the plaintiffs should be allowed to amend their complaint, and in order to reach the question of extraterritoriality, the court must assume the answers to a host of important questions.”

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