Supreme Court throws out child slavery lawsuit against Nestle, Cargill

Supreme Court throws out child slavery lawsuit against Nestle, Cargill
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Thursday threw out a lawsuit alleging that the food companies Nestle and Cargill aided and abetted child slavery in the Ivory Coast.

The court ruled in a 8-1 decision that the lawsuit from alleged former slaves at cocoa farms in the West African nation should be dismissed because U.S. courts don't have jurisdiction over their allegations.

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasAn obscure Supreme Court ruling is a cautionary tale of federal power Overnight Health Care: St. Louis reimposes mask mandate | Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry MORE. Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoBill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol No reason to pack the court Justice or just desserts? Trump, Cosby and Georgia cases show rising cost of political litigation MORE was the lone dissenter.

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Thomas said in his opinion that the lawsuit did not establish an adequate connection to conduct within the U.S. to qualify under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to bring certain suits in U.S. courts.

The Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had allowed the lawsuit to proceed because although the alleged conduct took place far outside U.S. borders, the companies' decisions are made domestically.

The lawsuit accused Nestle and Cargill of knowingly purchasing cocoa from farms that used slave labor and offering financial and technical support to those facilities.

Paul Hoffman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed in the court's decision with respect to their specific allegations but encouraged that at least some of the justices appear to believe that corporations do not enjoy any special immunity from such suits.

"We are disappointed that the Court read our allegations as claiming general corporate oversight by these companies over their Ivory Coast operations," Hoffman said in an email. "We believe that the companies are more deeply involved in the system of child slavery in that country. We will be able to amend our complaint to address the Court's standard."

A Nestle spokesperson said in an emailed statement that child labor is "unacceptable."

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"That is why we are working so hard to prevent it," the spokesperson added. "Today, the Supreme Court agreed there is no basis for this lawsuit to proceed against Nestlé. Nestlé never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit, and we remain unwavering in our dedication to combatting child labor in the cocoa industry and to our ongoing work with partners in government, NGOs and industry to tackle this complex, global issue."

A representative for Cargill did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

--Updated at 12:35 p.m.