Photographer: Jose Cendon/Bloomberg

Nestle, Cargill Win Dismissal of Ex-Child Slaves' Lawsuit

  • Judge says no allegation that any abuses were planned in U.S.
  • U.S. Supreme Court set high bar for overseas wrongdoing cases

Nestle SA’s U.S. unit and Cargill Inc. won dismissal of a lawsuit by six former child slaves from Mali who sought to hold the cocoa importers liable for their captivity and mistreatment on farms in neighboring Ivory Coast.

A Los Angeles federal judge agreed with the companies that the former laborers couldn’t sue in the U.S. over wrongdoing that occurred in Africa and that the former child slaves had failed to show that any domestic conduct by the two companies was linked to the use of forced labor at their overseas suppliers.

“There are no allegations the defendants planned or directed the use of forced child labor from the U.S., or that defendants planned or directed the underlying violations at all,” U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said in ruling made available Friday.

It’s the second time the judge has dismissed the lawsuit, originally filed in 2005. The former child slaves claimed U.S. cocoa importers knew forced labor was being used in the Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer. The companies nevertheless provided farmers there with funding, supplies and training, they said. The U.S. court of appeals in San Francisco reinstated the lawsuit in 2014.

Nestle and Cargill had argued a series of Supreme Court rulings bar foreigners from bringing human rights cases under a U.S. statute that had lain dormant for almost 200 years, until activists re-purposed it to sue over abuses in places such as Colombia, Nigeria and Myanmar.

Harm Possible

“This ruling is an important statement regarding the jurisdictional limits on these transnational tort lawsuits, which simply do not belong in the U.S. courts," Ted Boutrous Jr., a lawyer for Nestle said. “If U.S. courts were to entertain lawsuits like this one, it not only would contradict clear Supreme Court precedent but also could actually harm the very people the plaintiffs’ lawyers are purporting to represent.”

Lawyers for the six Malian former slaves didn’t immediately respond to an email after regular business hours seeking comment on the ruling.

More than 1 million children, some as young as 5, pick cocoa pods and then crack them open in the Ivory Coast and perform other manual labor under sometimes hazardous conditions.

The six plaintiffs were taken to Ivory Coast from Mali and sold to plantations in the 1990s, according to the lawsuit. They worked 14-hour days under armed guard without pay six days a week. Sleeping on the floors of locked rooms and given only food scraps, those caught trying to escape were severely beaten or forced to drink urine, according to the complaint.

In dismissing the lawsuit without giving the plaintiffs the chance to amend it, the judge said their attempt to single out corporate responsibility programs as evidence that Nestle and Cargill were knowingly aiding and abetting child slavery was counter-productive because it would “chill” corporations from creating such programs.

"Corporations would be incentivized to allow human rights abuses to occur without shedding light on the issue or trying to combat it out of fear they will displace the presumption and be held responsible," Wilson said.

The case is Doe v. Nestle SA, 05-cv-05133, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

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