WASHINGTON—Several Supreme Court justices expressed doubts Tuesday over a lawsuit that aims to hold Nestle USA Inc. and Cargill Inc. liable for the exploitation of child slaves on Ivory Coast plantations that supply the companies with cocoa.
The case was the latest testing of the reach of the Alien Tort Statute, a law originally passed in 1789 to conform the new American Republic to the “law of nations.” It allows foreign citizens to seek redress in U.S. courts for such affronts to universal norms as piracy and attacks on diplomats.
In recent years, human-rights lawyers have targeted deep-pocketed companies for alleged misconduct overseas. Corporations have fought back, with significant success, to narrow their potential liability in U.S. courts.
In 2013, the court ruled that foreign corporations were immune from suit under the statute, in part because it found such liability could complicate diplomatic relations and expose American companies to similar legal actions overseas. But Tuesday’s case involved American companies, and Chief Justice John Roberts immediately noted the distinction.
“In this case, no foreign country has objected to the United States hauling its own citizens into its own courts, so why should we be cautious in terms of international relations?” he asked. “What objection would foreign countries have to ensuring that U.S. corporations follow customary international law?”