The justices unanimously agreed Wednesday to shut down a lawsuit filed by Nigerians against Royal Dutch Petroleum, or Shell Oil, over claims that the company was complicit in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the 1990s.
The suit is one of several pending claims against U.S. and international companies that invoke the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. Human rights lawyers have used the law to sue individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, companies that do business in the United States as well as places where abuses occur.
While all the justices agreed that the Nigerians claims could not go forward, the court split sharply on the issue of whether the 224-year-old law generally could be used to sue over claimed human rights abuses in another country. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for five justices, said that it could not.
Roberts said the law does not allow claims "seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States."
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a separate opinion for four justices, agreed that the Nigerians' claims must not be accepted, but said he would leave the courthouse door open to lawsuits where alleged abuse "adverserly affects an important American national interest." Breyer said that category "includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor...for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind."
Energy and mining companies have been among the most frequent targets of these lawsuits in recent years following efforts by the military in Indonesia, Nigeria and elsewhere to clamp down on protests against oil and gas exploration and development.
The Alien Tort Statute, adopted in part to deal with piracy claims, went unused for most of American history until rights lawyers dusted it off beginning in the late 1970s. The Supreme Court cautiously endorsed the use of the law in 2004, but left unanswered precisely who could be held liable and in what circumstances.