(CN) – Organizations cannot be sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, affirming dismissal of a family’s claims against the Palestinian Authority.
The authority allegedly abducted Azzam Rahim, a U.S. citizen while he was visiting the West Bank in 1995. Rahim was imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed, according to a complaint his relatives filed in 2005. U.S. officials issued a report in 1996 that said Rahim died in the custody of Palestinian Authority intelligence officers in Jericho.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed the case against the authority and the PLO, however, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act extends liability only to “natural persons.”
After the D.C. Circuit affirmed, the Supreme Court took up the case along with a dispute over the Alien Tort Statute.
“Petitioners concede that foreign states may not be sued under the act-namely, that the act does not create an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which renders foreign sovereigns largely immune from suits in U. S. courts,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the mostly unanimous court. “They argue, however, that the TVPA does not similarly restrict liability against other juridical entities. In petitioners’ view, by permitting suit against ‘[a]n individual,’ the TVPA contemplates liability against natural persons and nonsovereign organizations (a category that, petitioners assert, includes respondents). We decline to read ‘individual’ so unnaturally. The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the act authorizes suit against natural persons alone.” (Parentheses and italics in original.)
Before courts can extend personhood to corporations, Congress must give some indication of that intention.
“There are no such indications in the TVPA,” Sotomayor wrote. “As noted, the Act does not define ‘individual,’ much less do so in a manner that extends the term beyond its ordinary usage. And the statutory context strengthens – not undermines – the conclusion that Congress intended to create a cause of action against natural persons alone. The act’s liability provision uses the word ‘individual’ five times in the same sentence: once to refer to the perpetrator (i.e., the defendant) and four times to refer to the victim. Only a natural person can be a victim of torture or extrajudicial killing.”
Justice Antonin Scalia did not join in a section of the opinion that considers legislative history.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer emphasized that the linguistic interpretation of the word “individual” cannot decide the case alone.