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Can foreigners sue international corporations in US courts?

A 223-year-old law says foreigners can file lawsuits in American courts for alleged violations of international law. But whether they can sue corporations remains a question for the Supreme Court.

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Charles Wiwa, who fled Nigeria in 1996 following a crackdown on protests against Shell’s oil operations, poses in Chicago earlier this month. He and other natives of the oil-rich Ogoni region say that Shell was complicit in human rights atrocities. US Supreme Court justices heard arguments Tuesday over the reach of the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to file suits in American courts for violations of international law.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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The lawyer for a group of Nigerian villagers seeking to sue a multinational corporation for alleged human rights violations received a chilly reception at the US Supreme Court Tuesday.

Paul Hoffman, a California appellate lawyer, endured a relentless barrage of blunt questions from the bench about whether a similar lawsuit could be filed in any other country in the world.

“I don’t know if this precise case could be brought,” Mr. Hoffman finally conceded.

“If there is no other country where this suit could have been brought ... isn’t it a legitimate concern that allowing the suit itself contravenes international law,” Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

The exchange came during an hour-long oral argument in a potential landmark case that could set the contours of corporate liability under an unusual 223-year-old American law.

The so-called Alien Tort Statute allows non-US citizens to file lawsuits in American courts for alleged violations of international law. Rather than filing their case in Nigeria, lawyers for the villagers decided to bring their fight to the US courts under the Alien Tort Statute.

There is just one problem. It is not clear that the enigmatic statute permits lawsuits against corporations.

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