The U.S. Supreme Court signaled interest in giving companies a broader shield from lawsuits by victims of overseas atrocities, asking the Trump administration for advice on a case stemming from child slavery on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.
Nestle SA’s U.S. unit and Cargill Inc. are urging the court to end a suit that accuses them of complicity in the use of forced child labor in the African country. The Supreme Court on Monday asked U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco to advise whether the justices should hear the companies’ appeals.
The case would test a centuries-old law, the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, that had become a favorite tool of human-rights activists before the Supreme Court started scaling it back. The court ruled in 2013 that the law generally doesn’t apply beyond U.S. borders, and in 2018 that foreign corporations can’t be sued.
But a federal appeals court said the allegations against Nestle and Cargill might have enough of a U.S. connection if the plaintiffs amended their lawsuit to provide more specifics.
“The allegations paint a picture of overseas slave labor that defendants perpetuated from headquarters in the United States,” the San Francisco-based appeals court said.
The case, filed by six former slaves who were kidnapped from their native Mali, has been moving up and down the federal court system since 2005. The companies are accused of aiding and abetting slave labor by giving Ivory Coast farmers financial assistance in the expectation that cocoa prices would stay low. The suit alleges the companies were fully aware that child slavery was being used.
The ex-slaves say children were forced to work as much as 14 hours a day, given only scraps to eat, and were severely beaten or tortured if they tried to escape.
In its appeal, Nestle USA said the plaintiffs “have not even alleged that their injuries can be traced to the domestic conduct of a defendant.” The company said it “unequivocally condemns child slavery.”
Cargill said the plaintiffs “do not allege they worked on a farm from which Cargill purchased cocoa or to which Cargill provided any form of assistance.”
Multinational companies have faced dozens of suits accusing them of playing a role in human rights violations, environmental wrongdoing and labor abuses.
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