Supreme Court throws out overseas human rights case
By David G. Savage | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: January 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said again Tuesday that federal courts are not the world’s forum for dealing with human rights abuses, tossing out a lawsuit brought in California by Argentines who sued German automaker Mercedes-Benz over atrocities perpetrated during the South American country’s “dirty war” of the late 1970s.
In a 9-0 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg faulted the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for what she called “exorbitant exercises of all-purpose jurisdiction.”
“It was therefore error for the 9th Circuit to conclude that Daimler (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz) was at home in California, and hence subject to suits there on claims by foreign plaintiffs having nothing to do with anything that occurred or had its principal impact in California,” she said.
The decision is consistent with rulings in recent years in which the high court has said that suits over abuses that took place overseas are not to be tried in the U.S. courts simply because the plaintiffs target a multinational corporation that does business in the United States.
In this instance, the Argentine plaintiffs alleged that Mercedes-Benz Argentina had collaborated with state security forces to kidnap, detain, torture and kill workers in Argentina. They sued in a federal court in Northern California by citing evidence that Mercedes sold cars throughout the United States, including in California.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the suit was not properly brought there, but the 9th Circuit revived it in an opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt from Los Angeles. Mercedes-Benz USA “was the largest supplier of luxury vehicles to the California market,” he wrote, accounting for 2.4 percent of the company’s worldwide sales.
DaimlerChrysler appealed to the Supreme Court, which threw out the suit Tuesday.
Speaking in the courtroom, Ginsburg said the federal courts do not have a “global reach” to decide disputes that arose in foreign lands.
“In the plaintiffs’ view of general jurisdiction, if a Mercedes-Benz vehicle overturned in Saudi Arabia injuring a driver and passengers from Norway, the injured persons could maintain a design defect suit in California,” she said. “We conclude Daimler is not ‘at home’ in California and cannot be sued there for injuries plaintiffs attribute to Mercedes-Benz Argentina’s conduct in Argentina.”