WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court decided Tuesday not to allow a lawsuit to move forward in California that accuses a foreign company of committing atrocities on foreign soil. The decision could make it harder for foreign victims of foreign crime to seek justice in American courts.
The high court on Tuesday used a unanimous judgment to refuse to allow survivors and victims of Argentina's "dirty war" to sue in California the former DaimlerChrysler Corp. of Stuttgart, Germany, for alleged abuses in Argentina.
Victims who say they were kidnapped and tortured by the Argentine government in the late 1970s and relatives of those who disappeared sued in state court, 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, 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.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the decision, agreed. Neither Daimler or Mercedes-Benz USA is incorporated in California or has its principal place of business in that state, she said. "We conclude Daimler is not 'at home' in California, and cannot be sued there for injuries plaintiffs attribute to MB Argentina's conduct in Argentina," Ginsburg said.
If the court had accepted the victims' reasoning, Ginsburg said, "if a Mercedes-Benz vehicle overturned in Saudi Arabia injuring a driver and passengers from Norway, the injured persons could maintain a design defect suit in California."
But the decision doesn't mean that foreign companies can never be sued for foreign crimes in the United States.