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

Court United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia, United States
Case number 09-7125
Decision title Decision
Decision date 8 July 2011
  • John Doe VIII, and others
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation, and others
Categories Human rights violations, Torture
Keywords torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, assault, battery, conversion, corporate responsibility, false imprisonment, kidnapping, negligence per se, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, prohibitions of extrajudicial killing, 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.

In an appeal against two previous rulings in this case, plaintiffs held that they should be allowed to sue Exxon for violations of the law of nations and for violations of state law. The question whether they were allowed to sue for violations of the law of nations hinged primarily on whether corporations can be sued for these violations and whether it is possible to sue for aiding-and-abetting international crimes. These questions were for the most part answered in the affirmative. The question whether they were allowed to sue for violations of state law hinged primarily on the question whether non-resident aliens could even bring a case before the Court. The Court stated that there was no absolute bar for non-residents aliens to sue and that this question had to be answered case-by-case. The Court of Appeals referred the case back to the District Court for further assessment.      

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Procedural history

In 2001 eleven villagers from Aceh filed a civil suit against Exxon Mobil. The plaintiffs held that the company carried responsibility for human rights violations committed by Indonesian security forces. 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. 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 on 14 October 2005 only allowed the state tort law claims to proceed. Plaintiffs amended their complaint, after which defendants filed a motion to dismiss. This motion was almost entirely dismissed on 2 March 2006 and the Court of Appeals on 12 January 2007 dismissed the appeal against this dismissal. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case on 16 June 2008. On 27 August 2008, the District Court rejected a motion to render a summary judgment with regard to Exxon Mobil Corporation and EMOI, Exxon’s Indonesian subsidiary. On 30 September 2009, the District Court dismissed the claims, stating that these non-resident plaintiffs had no standing in this case. 

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Related developments

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

In this appeal, the plaintiffs disputed two previous District Court decisions.

The first one, from 14 October 2005, dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims which were based on the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). That dismissal is challenged here, but only regarding the claims based on prohibitions of extrajudicial killing, torture and prolonged arbitrary detention. The Court of Appeals had to assess, most importantly, whether the District Court erred in ruling that aiding and abetting liability is unavailable under the ATCA. Also, it had to asses Exxon’s new contention an appeal that it is entitled to corporate immunity because customary international law does not recognize corporate liability for human rights liability for human rights violations.

The second one, from 30 September 2009, dismissed claims which were based on state law, stating that the non-resident plaintiffs did not have standing. The plaintiffs held that in this particular case, the general bar on non-resident alien standing did not apply. Exxon, on the other hand, stated that the case should be dismissed, because a ruling on these issues would interfere with foreign policy towards Indonesia. 

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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 held that aiding-and-abetting liability is well-established under the ATCA (p. 35). Also, the Court considered it appropriate to permit proceedings to go forward, even though the alleged conduct took place in Indonesia. It based this assessment, among other things on the fact that the Supreme Court in the Sosa case had not disapproved of lawsuits regarding alleged torts that occur outside the United States (pp. 24-25). Furthermore, the Court considered that neither historical context of the ATCA nor international law leads to conclude that corporate liability under the Act should be rejected, thereby dissenting with the Court of Appeal’s majority decision in Kiobel v. Shell (p. 64). However, the Court did hold that the TVPA does not permit for secondary corporate liability as alleged in this case (p. 87). The Court furthermore stated that the non-justiciability arguments of defendants should be dismissed, thereby considering among other things that the State Department had not made its concerns clear in this phase of proceedings (p. 94).

Regarding state law claims, the Court agreed with plaintiffs that there is no per se rule against standing for non-resident aliens in federal courts (p. 106). 

For abovementioned reasons, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District Court. 

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Further analysis

Articles on corporate liability under the ATCA.

Articles on corporate liability under the TVPA.

Article on questions of non-justiciability of cases which involves matters of foreign policy.

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

Attention was paid to the possible ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kiobel v. Shell:

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