Victims of apartheid in South Africa cannot pursue lawsuits seeking to hold Ford Motor Co. and IBM Corp. liable for conducting business that helped perpetuate the practice decades ago, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said black South Africans did not show that Ford and International Business Machines Corp. engaged in enough wrongdoing in the United States from the 1970s to early 1990s to justify lawsuits over their alleged roles in killings, torture and other human rights abuses.
Ford was accused of providing military vehicles for South African security forces and sharing information about anti-apartheid and union activists. IBM was accused of providing technology and training to perpetuate racial separation and the “denationalization” of black South Africans.
The plaintiffs sued 13 years ago under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that lets non-U.S. citizens seek damages in U.S. courts for human rights abuses abroad.
But the U.S. Supreme Court significantly narrowed the reach of that law in April 2013, leading a reluctant U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in August 2014 to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case.
Upholding that dismissal, Circuit Judge José Cabranes wrote for a 3-0 appeals court panel that Ford could not be held directly responsible for alleged improper actions by its South African unit.
He also found no showing that “by developing hardware and software to collect innocuous population data,” IBM purposefully contributed to apartheid-era abuses.
“Knowledge of or complicity in the perpetration of a crime under the law of nations (customary international law) – absent evidence that a defendant purposefully facilitated the commission of that crime – is insufficient to establish a claim of aiding and abetting liability under the ATS,” Cabranes wrote.
Diane Sammons, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Ford’s U.S. conduct justified liability and called it “astounding” that IBM’s conduct was not deemed purposeful.
“We certainly will consider an appeal to the Supreme Court,” she said.
In a statement, Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford said it remains committed to expanding in South Africa, after 91 years of manufacturing there.
IBM, based in Armonk, New York, did not respond to requests for comment.
Dozens of companies were previously dismissed from the litigation, including most recently Germany’s Daimler AG and Rheinmetall AG in December 2013.
Apartheid ended in 1994 when South Africa held its first all-race elections, bringing Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.
The case is In re: South African Apartheid Litigation, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-4104.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)
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