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John Doe et al. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation et al.

Court United States District Court for the District of Columbia, United States
Case number 01-1357 (LFO)
Decision title Memorandum
Decision date 14 October 2005
  • John Doe I
  • John Doe II
  • John Doe III
  • John Doe IV
  • John Doe V
  • John Doe VI
  • John Doe VII
  • Jane Doe I
  • Jane Doe II, individually and as Administratrix of her deceased husband’s estate.
  • Jane Doe III, individually and as Administratrix of her deceased husband’s estate.
  • Jane Doe IV, individually and as Administratrix of her deceased husband’s estate
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation
  • Exxon Mobil Oil Indonesia Inc.
  • Mobil Corporation
  • Mobil Oil Corporation
  • PT Arun LNG Company
Categories Crimes against humanity, Genocide, Human rights violations, Torture
Keywords crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, assault, battery, conversion, corporate liability, extrajudicial killing, false imprisonment, kidnapping, negligence per se, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, violence against women, wrongful death
Other countries involved
  • Indonesia
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Several villagers from Aceh, Indonesia, filed a civil suit against oil and gas company Exxon Mobil. They argued that the company carried responsibility for human rights violations committed by Indonesian security forces by hiring these forces and because Exxon Mobil knew or should have known that human rights violations were being committed. The Court allowed the case to proceed in part. The plaintiffs had attempted to bring the suit under federal statutes which allow aliens to sue for violations of human rights. The Court dismissed these claims for several reasons, including that these claims could not be assessed without passing judgment on another country, Indonesia, which the Court refused to do. Also, claims were dismissed because they had not been pled adequately.

Claims based on state laws were allowed to proceed, although claims against a corporation in which Indonesia owned a majority interests were dismissed because ruling on this company would mean passing judgment on Indonesia. The Court also cautioned the parties to be careful not to intrude into Indonesian sovereignty during further proceedings.  

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Procedural history

On 11 June 2001 eleven villagers from Aceh, Indonesia, filed a civil suit against Exxon Mobil. The plaintiffs held that the company carried responsibility for human rights violations committed by Indonesian security forces in Aceh. They argued that these security forces were hired by Exxon Mobil and that the company knew or should have known that human rights violations, committed by the security forces, were taking place. The alleged crimes included murder, genocide, torture, kidnapping, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, violence against women, wrongful death, assault, battery, arbitrary arrest and detention, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence per se, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, conversion, as well as the aiding and abetting the perpetrators in the commission of the aforementioned crimes. The plaintiffs invoked the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which allows aliens to bring a suit for a tort committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which allows for the filing of a suit regarding torture, and state tort law. 

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Related developments

The plaintiffs amended their complaint to solely encompass state law claims. In reaction, Exxon Mobil filed a new motion to dismiss, which was again dismissed by the District Court on 2 March 2006 and subsequently by the Court of Appeals on 12 January 2007. The US Supreme Court denied Exxon Mobil’s petition for a writ of certiorari on 16 June 2008. Exxon Mobil filed a motion for a summary judgement, which the District Court declined to grant on  27 August 2008 as he found that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient preliminary evidence to support their allegations. However, on 30 September 2009, the District Court did grant another motion to dismiss as the judge found that the foreign plaintiffs did not have standing in a US court. This dismissal was reversed by the Court of Appeals on 8 July 2011. Currently, the case is pending at the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., where the case is assessed in light of the repercussions of the Supreme Court ruling in Kiobel v. Shell of 17 April 2013.

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Legally relevant facts

In 1975 a conflict flared up between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement, which tried to achieve independence for Aceh. One of the movements’ objections against the Indonesian government was the fact that  the government concluded agreements with American oil and gas companies to exploit Aceh’s natural resources. The plaintiffs allege that during this conflict, Exxon Mobil hired a unit of the Indonesian national army to protect its pipelines. Allegedly, these troops committed human rights violations and the plaintiffs allege that Exxon Mobil carries responsibility for this. According to the plaintiffs, Exxon Mobil “conditioned payment on providing security, made decisions about where to build bases, hired mercenaries to train the security troops, and provided logistical support” (p. 2). 

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Core legal questions

The defendants had filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint, which the Court had to assess. This motion sought dismissal on, among others, the following grounds: the defendants argued that there was no subject matter jurisdiction and no claim based on the ATCA and the TVPA. They disputed that plaintiffs had adequately pled that defendants violated the law of nations, as required by the ATCA. The TVPA creates liability for ‘an individual’ who subjects another individual to torture or extrajudicial killings. The parties disagreed about whether ‘individual’ includes corporations. Furthermore, the defendants claimed that the case was nonjusticiable, since one of the defendants, PT Arun LNG Company was owned for 55% by a sovereign state: Indonesia. Also, the defendants alleged that the case should be dismissed because it would be inappropriate to try this case at a US court.  

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • US Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA)
  • US Torture Victim Protection Act. (TVPA)

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims regarding the ATCA and the TVPA.

Regarding the ATCA, the Court referred to the South African Apartheid Litigation to conclude that defendants cannot be held liable on a theory of aiding and abetting (p. 6). Regarding genocide and crimes against humanity, the Court stated that it could not assess these claims without passing judgment on Indonesia, which it refused to do. Resolving claims of torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killing posed “less of a threat of infringing Indonesia’s sovereignty” (p.8). Still, the Court dismissed these claims for the plaintiffs failed “to plead these violations adequately” (p. 9).

Regarding the TVPA, the Court held that “the plain reading of the statute strongly suggests that it only covers human beings, and not corporations” and that the TVPA requires the plaintiff to establish government involvement (under actual or apparent authority, or under color of law) in the torturing (p. 13). That, the Court stated, was not the case here.

State law tort claims were allowed to proceed. Claims regarding PT Arun LNG Company were considered non-justifiable: the Court cautioned the parties “to avoid intrusion into Indonesian sovereignty” in further proceedings and held that plaintiffs’ claim that proceedings in Indonesia would be futile was credible whereby proceedings could continue in a US court (p. 15).

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Further analysis

Article from 2003 on the possible consequences of this case. Analyses of aiding and abetting liability and corporate liability under the ATCA and on corporate liability under the TVPA.

See also the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre's Case profile: ExxonMobil lawsuit (re Aceh).

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials

News article on the initiation of these proceedings in the New York Times and on the District Court’s ruling in the Houston Chronicle. Alden wrote a news article addressing the US government’s statement of interest, in which the government argued that this lawsuit might harm US relations with Indonesia and hence be disadvantageous for US interests.  

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