skip navigation

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 and Opinion
Decision date 27 August 2008
  • 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
back to top


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 this phase of the proceedings, the defendants requested the Court to grant a summary judgment and thereby to dismiss the claims before a trial would be held. The Court denied this request, stating that in this phase of the proceedings, the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to support their allegations and for the proceedings to continue. The Court considered that the plaintiffs had made it likely that the Indonesian security forces had maltreated them and that Exxon Mobil was responsible for this. One of Exxon’s companies, EMOI, had controlled and paid the forces and according to the Court, EMOI should have foreseen that violence would take place. 

back to top

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. This motion was, almost in its entirety, dismissed in 2006 and the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal against the dismissal in 2007.  

back to top

Related developments

On 30 September 2009 the District Court granted 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.

back to top

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”. 

back to top

Core legal questions

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which would mean that the Court would enter a judgment without a full trial. Such summary judgment “should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is not genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law” (p. 7). Exxon based its request for summary judgment, most importantly on the contention that the defendants were not liable for the alleged torts.  This contention had three parts: (I) There was insufficient evidence that the paid security forces committed the alleged torts. (II) Even if there would have been such evidence, there was insufficient evidence that EMOI, Exxon’s Indonesian subsidiary, was liable for the security forces conduct. (III) Even if there would have been sufficient evidence of EMOI’s liability, there was insufficient evidence that the US defendants are liable. 

back to top

Court's holding and analysis

The Court stated that statements and evidence in this phase of the proceedings sufficiently stated that EMOI’s paid security forces committed the alleged torts (p. 9). Thus, the matter hinges on determining whether the defendants could be held liable for these torts. The Court determined that this was the case, based on the doctrine that a “master is liable for the acts of its servants” (p. 10). In order to establish such liability, there has to be a master-servant relationship and the tortuous conduct must occur while the servant is acting within the scope of his or her employment. The Court determined, based on internal EMOI documents and testimonies, that EMOI controlled and paid military security forces (pp. 12-15). Moreover, the Court considered that a “reasonable fact finder” could conclude that the violent acts alleged fell within the scope of EMOI’s paid security forces employment, since unauthorised acts of violence were foreseeable (p.17). EMOI was also liable for negligent hiring and negligent supervision, as hiring armed security in a warlike environment, might fairly be deemed “inherently dangerous” (pp. 20-21). This liability extended to EMOI and Exxon Mobil Corporation, the ultimate parent. Thus, with regard to these defendants, the motion for summary judgment is denied. 

back to top

Further analysis

Article on employer liability for the misconduct of employees, agents or servants. Article published by the International Center for Transitional Justice on this case, published shortly after this ruling was rendered.

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

back to top

Related cases

back to top

Additional materials

back to top

Social media links