Supreme Court: No Liability for Organizations Under Torture Victims Protection Act

Today the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Judge Ginsburg’s holding that the Torture Victim Protection Act (“TVPA”) does not permit suits against organizations.  Like Judge Ginsburg, the Supreme Court relied on the plain meaning of the Act, which provides a cause of action against “[a]n individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation . . . subjects an individual to torture . . . or . . . extrajudicial killing.”  The Supreme Court held that the word “individual,” which the TVPA also uses to describe victims, denotes only natural persons.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion cautions that it should not be read to imply a similar result in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., No. 10-1536 (S. Ct.), which concerns corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute, because the ATS does not use the word “individual.”  But Judge Kavanaugh, dissenting in another ATS case, noted “the bizarre result that would ensue if aliens–but not U.S. citizens–could bring suit in U.S. court for the same injuries caused by the same defendant.”

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion was joined in full by every member of the Court except for Justice Scalia, who opted out of an analysis of the TVPA’s legislative history.  Even Justice Sotomayor said the Court “need not rely on legislative history given the text’s clarity.”  Justice Breyer relied on legislative history more heavily in a two-page concurrence.  In Breyer’s view, this context matters because “[t]he word ‘individual’ is open to multiple interpretations, permitting it, linguistically speaking, to include natural persons, corporations, and other entities.”

Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, No. 11-88,  (S. Ct. April 18, 2012)

(H/T: Kali Borkiski at SCOTUSblog)


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