WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday didn’t seem to like the idea of U.S. courts being allowed to hear lawsuits that accuse foreign companies of committing atrocities on foreign soil.
The high court listened somewhat skeptically to arguments that it should uphold a lower court decision that would allow survivors and victims of Argentina’s “dirty war” sue the former DaimlerChrysler Corp. of Stuttgart, Germany, for alleged abuses in Argentina in California court.
Several justices seemed to think that allowing this lawsuit would open American courts to lawsuits from around the world that may not have anything to do with issues they think belong in a U.S. court.
“So if a Mercedes-Benz vehicle overturned in Poland and injured the Polish driver and passenger, suit for the design defect could be brought in California?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kevin Russell, lawyer for the victims from Argentina, said under their reading of the law, the answer would be yes.
“It doesn’t lead to good results when you assume something that is obviously in error,” Justice Elena Kagan responded.
Survivors of victims who disappeared and who say they were kidnapped and tortured by the Argentine government in the late 1970s sued in California, alleging Mercedes-Benz was complicit in the killing, torture or kidnapping by the military of unionized auto workers.
In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands were killed, kidnapped or “disappeared,” including trade unionists, left-wing political activists, journalists and intellectuals in Argentina in what has become known as the dirty war. The suit says “the kidnapping, detention and torture of these plaintiffs were carried out by state security forces acting under the direction of and with material assistance” from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Gonzalez-Catan, near Buenos Aires.
The lawsuit said that Daimler could be sued over the alleged Argentina abuses in California since its subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz USA, sold cars in that state. A federal judge threw that lawsuit out, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and said it could move forward.
The company, now known as Daimler, however, has argued that since it is a German corporation, it should not be able to be sued in a state court by foreign nationals for actions a subsidiary allegedly took in a foreign country.
“This is a case involving Argentine plaintiffs suing a German corporation based on events that allegedly occurred in Argentina more than 30 years ago,” said Thomas H. Dupree, Jr., lawyer for Daimler. “This case has no connection to the United States, and it has no business in a California courtroom.”
But Russell said that the court system has been working on this case for a long time, effort that should not be wasted by dismissing the case. “I think you would have to take into account this case has been in litigation for eight years already. I think that’s a substantial reason for the court to want to allow the case to continue,” he said.
The court will likely make a decision next year.
The case is DaimlerChrysler AG v. Bauman, 11-965.