- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

A little-noted ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney has raised the intriguing possibility that foreign terrorists and others could use our court system to sue American companies doing business in their countries, if their own governments interrogated them or threw them in prison at the request of the United States. The terrorists then might allege human-rights abuses under the dusty Alien Tort Claims Act of 1792, and sue any American company engaged in a joint-venture with that foreign government.

Judge Chaney held on June 10 that Unocal Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., may be liable for the general conduct of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Her ruling came after an activist group, the International Labor Rights Organization (ILRO), filed suit alleging that Myanmar forced several of its citizens to work under slave-like conditions in a joint-venture it and Unocal were conducting in the Yadana natural-gas fields of southern Myanmar.

The ILRO already has filed six human-rights abuse lawsuits against U.S. corporations in an effort to expand the reach of American tort law to foreign soil and perhaps, not so coincidentally prevent U.S. firms from moving jobs overseas. American personal-injury lawyers representing the ILRO and others are not just going after huge oil-producing companies like Unocal. Such American business icons as Coca-Cola, Gap, Levi Strauss and Dole also have been sued in U.S. courts for the actions of foreign governments they were affiliated with on various projects.

The 210-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) was originally designed to allow foreign citizens to sue pirates from their own countries who were using U.S. ports as a safe haven. As piracy began to die out in the early 1800s, ATCA became dormant but was never eliminated by Congress. American personal injury lawyers dusted it off in the late 1990s and began using it to sue American companies with deep pockets in part because they found it impossible to win damage awards from the governments that committed the alleged abuses and in part because of a general disdain for capitalism.

Congress never intended this law to be turned on American companies operating in foreign countries. America's economic prosperity depends on the ability of U.S. corporations to compete with foreign rivals at home or abroad. U.S. firms with overseas operations shouldn't be forced to fend-off lawsuits that seek to punish them for the acts of host governments. Congress could remedy this disturbing situation, if the trial lawyers didn't hold an effective veto over almost all such legislation.


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