John Doe I, et al., v. UNOCAL Corp., et al., 395 F.3d 932 (9 Cir. 2002)

Forum: 
US Court of Appeals - Ninth Circuit
Nature of the Case: 

Complaint alleged that Myanmar's military subjected villagers to forced labor, rape, torture and murder with the knowledge and support of Unocal, a U.S. oil and gas corporation, which created liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ACTA)[1]; Whether to be liable under ATCA a non-state actor must engage in state action; Whether Unocal was liable for aiding and abetting the Myanmar military in subjecting villagers to forced labor, rape, murder and torture; Scope of the legal liability of  transnational corporations for violations of human rights under ATCA.


[1] The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) provides non-citizens of the United States the opportunity to bring a civil suit in US courts for a tort (injury) committed in violation of the law of nations (international law).

Summary: 

During Unocal's construction of an oil pipeline in Myanmar, it hired Myanmar's military for security while the pipeline was built. The villagers in the area where the pipeline was being constructed alleged the military forcefully evicted them, forced them to work on the project and raped, murdered and tortured them. They subsequently brought two cases in the District Court in California, both of which were decided in favor of Unocal through summary judgment.[1] The claimants appealed the decision and in 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court's decision by dismissing the summary judgment orders and determined the lawsuit against Unocal should go forward to trial. As the basis for this decision, the Court of Appeals held that liability under ATCA does not require the rights violation to have been committed through state action (by the state or as an extension of state authority) if the violation was committed in furtherance of crimes which themselves do not require state action to establish liability, such as war crimes, genocide and slavery. The Court determined that forced labor is a modern form of slavery, therefore individuals, including corporations, such as Unocal, could be found liable under ATCA. Consequently, the tribunal determined that Unocal could be held liable under ACTA for aiding and abetting (or providing willing support) to the Myanmar Military in establishing a system of forced labor, murder and rape because it could be reasonably shown that Unocal knew the military was carrying out the violations and provided support.  Evidence in the record did not support the same liability for acts of torture. Based on these findings the Court found enough evidence for the case to move forward to trial.

Keywords: John Doe I, et al., v. UNOCAL Corp., et al., 395 F.3d 932 (9 Cir. 2002), Land, Right, Natural, Resources


[1] Summary judgments are court decisions made on the merits of the entire case or of particular legal issues without a full trial. 

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

In 2005, before the jury trial began, the parties agreed to a settlement and the case was dismissed with the requirement that it cannot be brought to court again in the future (Doe I v. Unocal, 403 F.3d 708 [9 Cir. 2005]). Unocal agreed to compensate the 14 surviving plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount and EarthRights International, who was involved in the case, has confirmed that this compensation has taken place and that community programs to improve living conditions, health care and education and protect the rights of people in the pipeline region are in development. 

Groups involved in the case: 

Paul L. Hoffman (Schonbrun, Desimome, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman LLP); Dan Stormer and Anne Richardson (Hadsell & Stormer, Inc.); William Goodman, Jennifer M. Green, and Beth Stephens (Center for Constitutional Rights); Katharine J. Redford and Richard Herz (Earthrights International); Judith Brown Chomsky; Julie Shapiro; Dilan Esper (Stein & Flugge, LLP) for plaintiffs-appellants Doe. Terrence P. Collingsworth and Natacha Thys (International Labor Rights Fund); Christopher E. Krafchak and Kenderton S. Lynch III (Krafchak & Associates); Martin J. D’Urso, Hilary Cohen, and Nadia Ezzelarab (Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C.); Christobal Bonifaz and John C. Bonifaz (Law Offices of Christobal Bonifaz) for plaintiffs-appellants Roe.

Significance of the Case: 

The most important legal precedent set during the Unocal litigation is that US corporations, like individuals, can be liable under ATCA for complicity in egregious human rights violations. However, because the parties settled, the appropriate standard for determining third party liability was never conclusively determined.  There have been several other cases involving corporate complicity in human rights violations that have gone forward, such as Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell, 226 F.3d 88 (2000) which extended corporate liability under ATCA to foreign corporations if they maintained "continuous and systematic ties to the US."  In 2009, Shell settled with the claimants in the Wiwa case for $15.5 million. In 2004, during the Supreme Court hearing of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain 542 U.S. 692 (2004), 331 F.3d 604 [reversed], the Bush Administration submitted numerous amicus curiae arguing against ATCA's application to corporations. While the Supreme Court's decision in Sosa affirmed that corporate liability exists under ATCA, they limited its application to violations of laws of nations, which are "specific, universal, and obligatory" - without further elaboration or example - therefore providing little guidance for lower courts moving forward. An important case is approaching which may provide additional opportunities for elaboration of corporate liability under ATCA: Khulumani v. Barclays, et al, which is still awaiting trial date in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. 

Case Law Thematic Focus: