A federal appeals court today ruled that a lawsuit filed against Exxon Mobil Corp. over alleged human rights violations in Indonesia can go forward.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed a district court judge who had ruled that the group of villagers from the Aceh region did not have standing to sue.
The plaintiffs allege that security forces working for Exxon -- which operates a natural gas facility in Aceh -- committed various offenses, including murder and torture.
In reaching its conclusion, the three-judge panel voted 2-1 to reject Exxon's contention that it was immune from liability under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows federal courts to hear human rights claims filed by citizens of other countries.
The court did, however, dismiss the plaintiffs' claims brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act.
Writing for the majority, Judge Judith Rogers delved back into history to examine whether the Alien Tort Statute, which was enacted in 1789, could be applied to corporate conduct.
"The law of the United States has been uniform since its founding that corporations can be held liable for the torts committed by their agents," she wrote.
To rule otherwise "would create a bizarre anomaly to immunize corporations from liability for the conduct of their agents," she added.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his dissenting opinion that he agreed with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in a case involving allegations against Royal Dutch Shell PLC over its operations in Nigeria that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply to corporations.
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the only other federal appeals court to touch the issue. It ruled along similar lines to the D.C. Circuit.
The split in the circuits suggests the question could eventually attract the interest of the Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs in the 2nd Circuit case currently have a petition pending before the justices.
Marco Simons, an attorney at Earthrights International who filed a brief in the D.C. Circuit in support of the plaintiffs, said he would not be surprised if "at some point" the Supreme Court wanted to take up the issue.
Three other circuits are currently considering similar cases, he added.
Patrick McGinn, a spokesman for Exxon, said the claims were "baseless" and stressed that the company "has worked for generations to improve the quality of life in Aceh through employment of local workers, provision of health services and extensive community investment."
Click here to read the ruling.