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Cynthia Corrie et al. v. Caterpillar Inc.

Court United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit, United States
Case number CV-05-05192-FDB
Decision title Opinion
Decision date 17 September 2007
  • Cynthia Corrie
  • Craig Corrie
  • Mahmoud Omar Al Sho’bi
  • Fathiya Muhammad Sulayman Fayed
  • Fayez Ali Mohammed Abu Hussein
  • Majeda Radwan Abu Hussein
  • Eida Ibrahim Suleiman Khalafallah
  • Caterpillar, INC.
Categories Human rights violations, War crimes
Keywords aiding and abetting, conspiracy, corporate liability, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, extrajudicial killing, Israel / Palestinian Territories, negligence, political question doctrine, public nuisance, war crimes, wrongful death
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In 2003, bulldozers manufactured by the American company Caterpillar were used by the Israeli IDF to destroy several houses on the Gaza Strip, killing several Palestinians and an American peace activist in the process. The relatives of the victims and those who lost their homes filed a suit against Caterpillar, arguing that by providing the Israeli military with bulldozers, they were liable for, among other things, war crimes and extrajudicial killing.

The District Court dismissed the claim. The plaintiffs appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower Court’s verdict. In its ruling, it devoted most attention to the ‘political question doctrine’ which disallows Courts from exercising jurisdiction over cases which should remain within the realm of other governmental branches. Since the bulldozers had been paid for by the US, the Court reasoned, a ruling on the merits would also be a judicial opinion about important aspects of US foreign policy. Foreign policy should be decided on by the executive branch of the government, not the judiciary, the Court reasoned.    

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Procedural history

On 2 May 2005 a federal lawsuit was filed against Caterpillar Inc on behalf of the parents of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist who was run over and killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, and on behalf of Palestinian relatives of other victims.

The suit charges Caterpillar with aiding and abetting war crimes and serious human rights violations. The argument was made that Caterpillar provided the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) with bulldozers, knowing they would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians in the Palestinian Territories. The plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages and an injunctive order directing Caterpillar to cease its participation in providing equipment and services to the IDF. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs  had failed to state a claim and that the claim was barred by the ‘political question’ and ‘act of state’ doctrine.

The District Court granted the motion to dismiss, stating, among other things that selling products to a foreign government does not make the seller liable for subsequent human rights violations. Also, the Court stated that it could not prohibit Caterpillar to sell bulldozers to Israel, as this would infringe upon the government’s executive branch’s exclusive right to decide on trade restraints regarding Israel. Corrie et al. appealed.   

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Related developments

A petition for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc was denied on 12 January 2009.  A civil lawsuit brought by the family against the Israeli military was dismissed in August 2012. 

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Legally relevant facts

On 16 March 2003, 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie attempted to protect a house from being demolished. She and several Palestinians were run over and killed by a bulldozer. Her parents and the Palestinian families who lost their family members and houses brought a case against the manufacturer of the bulldozer: Caterpillar Inc (p. 12490). 

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Core legal questions

  • The Court of Appeals had to assess whether the District Court had erred in granting the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The District Court had primarily based it’s ruling on the reasoning that selling products to a foreign government does not make the seller liable for subsequent human rights violations and on the reasoning that a prohibition to sell products to Israel would infringe upon the government’s executive branch’s exclusive rights to decide on trade restraints regarding Israel.  

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • US Alien Tort Claims Act, Paragraph 1350 of Title 28 of the US Code.
  • US Torture Victim Protection act.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court of Appeals solely relied on the political question doctrine to conclude that the Court was deprived of subject matter jurisdiction.  It placed great emphasis on the fact that Caterpillar’s sales to Israel were paid for by the United States. According to the Court, this is the ‘decisive factor’ in determining whether the political question doctrine applied here. ‘Each claim unavoidably rests on the singular premise that Caterpillar should not have sold its bulldozers to the IDF. Yet these sales were financed by the executive branch pursuant to a congressionally enacted program calling for executive discretion as to what lies in the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States’ (p. 12499). Therefore, the Court reasoned, to allow this action to proceed ‘would necessarily require the judicial branch of our government to question the political branches’ decision to grant extensive military aid to Israel’ (p. 12499). Lastly, the Court displayed mindfulness of the ‘potential of causing international embarrassment were a federal Court to undermine foreign policy decisions in the sensitive context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ (p. 12502). 

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Further analysis

Baars commented on this case. Kanwar wrote an article on the ‘political question doctrine’, with reference to this case.  The Palestine Center published a report on the Caterpillar case. Martin wrote an article on corporate liability under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Cassel wrote an article on corporate aiding and abetting of human rights violations.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

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