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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 2 March 2006
  • John Doe I, and others
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation, and others
Categories Human rights violations
Keywords arbitrary arrest and detention, assault, battery, conversion, corporate liability, false imprisonment, kidnapping, negligence per se, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, wrongful death
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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.

After the District Court allowed the case to proceed in part, the plaintiffs presented an amended complaint, which was assessed again by the District Court. It allowed most of these claims, which were based on the laws of the District of Columbia, to proceed. US law should be applied, the Court reasoned, because Exxon Mobil was based in the United States. 

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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 forces were hired by Exxon Mobil and that the company knew or should have known that they were committing human rights violations. 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. The District Court only allowed the state tort law claims to proceed. The plaintiffs amended their complaint, after which defendants filed a motion to dismiss. 

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Related developments

The dismissal of the motion to dismiss was confirmed 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”.

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Core legal questions

The Court had to assess whether it had subject matter jurisdiction over the amended claims, which solely relied on state tort law claims, based on 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(2), which allows jurisdiction over civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75.000 and which is between foreign citizens and citizens of the United States. Also, it had to determine which law, Indonesian or US law, should apply. Furthermore, the Court had to address the defence’s argument that the case should be dismissed based on the foreign affairs doctrine, which preempts state laws when there is a conflict between the state law and “exercise of federal executive authority”, in this case to conduct foreign policy (p. 4). Also, the defendants held that the plaintiffs had failed to allege that the defendants controlled the actions of the Indonesian military. Also, the Court had to assess whether the negligent infliction of emotional distress and conversion claims were allowed to proceed. Lastly, the defendants argue that John Doe V did not sufficiently state a claim for battery, assault, or false arrest.

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Paragraph 1332(a)(2) of Title 28 of the US Code.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court accepted subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. para. 1332(a)(2) (p. 2) and then went on to address the choice of law. It considered that applying Indonesian law might be logical, since the violations occurred in Indonesia. However, the Court concluded that the US had an overriding interest in applying its own laws to the defendants, which are US companies (p. 3). Therefore, the proper focus of this litigation, the Court reasoned, was whether US companies violated US law by its conduct in protecting their pipeline in Indonesia (p. 3). The foreign affairs doctrine as presented by the defendants does not apply, the Court stated, as no state government has passed any statute in conflict with US foreign policy (p. 5). The Court held that the allegations made by plaintiffs that Exxon Mobil knew about human rights abuses committed by security forces and nevertheless hired these forces are sufficient, if true, to establish liability (pp. 5-8). In assessing whether the claim regarding negligent infliction of emotional distress could proceed, the Court held that, if the allegations would be true, only the soldiers could be held liable, not Exxon Mobil (p. 9). Conversion claims and assault and battery claims were allowed to proceed (pp. 9-10).

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Further analysis

Two articles on the Foreign Affairs Doctrine, in which the possibilities for state governments in the US to conduct foreign policy are assessed. And an article by Born on matters of judicial jurisdiction in international cases, in which diversity jurisdiction pursuant to Paragraph 1332(a)(2) Title 28 USC is addressed.

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