The United States Supreme Court on Thursday sided with food giants Nestle and Cargill in a lawsuit that claimed they knowingly bought cocoa beans from farms in Africa that used child slave labour.
The justices ruled 8-1 in favour of the food companies and against a group of six adult citizens of Mali who claimed they were taken from their country as children and forced to work on cocoa farms in neighbouring Ivory Coast.
The justices said an appeals court was wrong to let the group’s lawsuit go forward.
“Although respondents’ injuries occurred entirely overseas, the Ninth Circuit held that respondents could sue in federal court because the defendant corporations allegedly made ‘major operational decisions’ in the United States. The Ninth Circuit erred by allowing this suit to proceed,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a majority opinion for the court.
The case had been twice dismissed at an early stage before being revived by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. When the case was argued in December, then-President Donald Trump’s administration backed Nestle and Cargill.
The argument of the group from Mali is that Minneapolis-based Cargill and the US arm of Switzerland-based Nestle “aided and abetted” their slavery as children by, among other things, buying cocoa beans from farms that used child labour. The group sued, seeking to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and who they say are thousands of other former child slaves.
Nestle and Cargill have said they have taken steps to combat child slavery and have denied any wrongdoing.
The case involves a law enacted by the very first Congress in 1789, the Alien Tort Statute, which permits foreign citizens to sue in US courts for human rights abuses. The question for the justices was whether it permits lawsuits against US companies.
The high court in recent years has limited the use of the Alien Tort Statute. In 2018, the court ruled that foreign businesses cannot be sued under the law. In that case, the court rejected an attempt by Israeli victims of attacks in the West Bank and Gaza to use US courts to sue Jordan-based Arab Bank, which they said helped finance the attacks.
The case is Nestle USA v. Doe I, 19-416, and Cargill Inc. v. Doe I, 19-453.