On Feb. 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. The case is about Shell’s alleged complicity in torture and extrajudicial killings committed by the Nigerian military in the mid-1990s, and is expected to determine whether corporations can be sued in the U.S. for their involvement in human rights abuses abroad.
Corporate lawyers and plaintiffs’ attorneys alike are eagerly awaiting the outcome. If the Supreme Court upholds corporate liability, as federal courts have in the past and the Obama administration is encouraging the High Court to do, other lawsuits will surely follow — against Apple for labor abuses in its Chinese manufacturing base, for example.
But we should not let this case distract us from the fact that lawsuits should be a last resort for people hurt by business. Suing a company is expensive, complicated, and time-consuming, and it rarely makes victims whole. In 2009, after three years of litigation, Shell settled a related case for $15.5 million — to be divided among 10 plaintiffs, their lawyers, and a fund for education and other initiatives in the plaintiffs’ communities. Hardly an ideal outcome where lives have been lost.
Similarly, Chevron’s relentless pursuit of legal absolution for environmental destruction in Ecuador means that the communities harmed by toxic waste will never receive remedy of any kind, as long as their advocates, government, and the company are consumed by the court proceedings.
Instead, we should focus on making sure that companies don’t hurt people in the first place — and when they do, that there are adequate means of redress so that the victims don’t have to end up in protracted legal battles.