August 19, 2022

Exxon to Face Lawsuit Over Rights Violations in Indonesia

A federal appeals court said on Friday that companies were not immune from liability under a 1789 law known as the Alien Tort Statute for “heinous conduct” committed by their agents in violation of human rights norms.

The 15 villagers contended in their lawsuit that family members were killed and that others were “beaten, burned, shocked with cattle prods, kicked and subjected to other forms of brutality and cruelty” amounting to torture in Indonesia’s Aceh province between 1999 and 2001, a period of civil unrest.

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said Exxon Mobil should be forced to defend against such charges and sent the case back to the trial court.

Given that laws in civilized nations hold corporations responsible for lesser wrongs, “it would create a bizarre anomaly to immunize corporations from liability for the conduct of their agents in lawsuits brought for shockingly egregious violations of universally recognized principles of international law,” Judge Judith Rogers wrote for a 2-1 majority.

Friday’s decision reversed part of a ruling by the United States District Court in Washington.

It is also at odds with a landmark ruling last September by the Court of Appeals for the Second District in New York, raising the prospect that the case will reach the Supreme Court.

“The ruling basically says that corporations are not above the law,” said Jennifer Green, a University of Minnesota law professor and director of that school’s human rights litigation clinic, who submitted a brief on the plaintiffs’ behalf. “When corporations have knowledge that they are aiding and abetting human rights abuses, they can be held liable in a U.S. court.”

Exxon Mobil, based in Irving, Tex., said it was reviewing Friday’s decision, calling the plaintiffs’ claims “baseless.”

Patrick McGinn, a spokesman, said in a statement that Exxon “strongly condemns human rights violations in any form.”

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