Alien Tort Statute (ATS)

Enacted in 1789 as part of the Judiciary Act, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) provides federal jurisdiction over lawsuits brought by non-U.S. nationals for torts “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The ATS was intended to give federal courts of the new nation the power to resolve disputes arising from a very limited number of international law violations, such as piracy or assaults on ambassadors on U.S. soil, that might have caused diplomatic tension if left unaddressed by state courts. Despite its original intent, the ATS has served for the past two decades as the fountainhead of litigation against multinational companies for human rights violations allegedly committed by foreign governments or other foreign actors in countries all over the world. Read More...

More than 150 ATS suits have been filed against companies in practically every industry sector for business activities in over sixty countries—from Unocal in Burma, to Pfizer in Nigeria, Coca-Cola in Colombia, and Yahoo! in China. The largest ATS suit to date was filed in 2002 against more than fifty companies, including Ford and IBM, for business dealings in South Africa during the apartheid era. ATS suits are typically litigated for a decade or more, chilling international investment and imposing substantial legal and reputational costs on corporations that operate in developing countries.

The Supreme Court has twice reined in expansive interpretations of the ATS. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that the ATS covers only a small handful of international law crimes, not the broad panoply of suits being filed by plaintiffs’ lawyers. The Court cautioned lower courts to refrain from incorporating new violations that had not garnered universal acceptance under international law. In April 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum that the ATS is limited by the legal presumption that U.S. laws do not extend beyond U.S. borders unless Congress says otherwise. Accordingly, the ATS typically does not apply when “all the relevant conduct took place outside the United States.” This decision ended the majority of ATS suits against U.S. and foreign companies, which had been sued for their overseas activities (or, more often, for the activities of their foreign affiliates).

The Supreme Court appeared to leave the door open, however, to a small set of ATS cases “where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States” with “sufficient force.” The Court did not elaborate on what claims would satisfy this new test, but explained that “mere corporate presence” in the United States is not enough. Since Kiobel, lower courts have reached different conclusions about how to apply the “touch and concern” test. Most courts have interpreted Kiobel to require that the international law violation must itself take place within the United States, while others have held that significant contacts with the United States may be sufficient, even if the violation occurred overseas.

Recent decisions limiting the ATS have rebuffed plaintiffs’ attempt to use the ATS to bring lawsuits with little or no connection to the United States—a proposition that would have been unthinkable to the law’s framers in 1789. Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has applauded judicial limits on the ATS that “ensure that trial lawyers cannot continue to use the American judicial system to expose global businesses to frivolous and costly lawsuits.” To help restore the ATS to its original purpose, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) and the National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC) have advised and represented U.S. companies in ATS litigation for over a decade. NCLC has filed dozens of briefs in major ATS cases urging dismissal of suits that exceed the law’s intended scope, including Jesner v. Arab Bank, in which the Supreme Court will decide in Spring 2018 whether corporations can be sued under the ATS. ILR likewise monitors developments in ATS cases, publishes research, and advocates policies that would restore the ATS to its original purpose.


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All Results for Alien Tort Statute (ATS)

  1. SCOTUS Says Corporations Can't Be Sued Under 220-Year-Old Law

    April 25, 2018 | News

    Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said foreign corporations cannot be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed in the United States in 1789.... Read More

  2. In the News Today - October 12, 2017

    October 12, 2017 | News and Blog

    Terror Liability Troubles Kennedy, Conservatives At High Court... Read More

  3. In the News Today - October 11, 2017

    October 11, 2017 | News and Blog

    Alien Torts Unlimited; Uber reaches $20 million settlement in class-action lawsuit over text messages... Read More

  4. As Kiobel Turns Two: How the Supreme Court is Leaving the Details to Lower Courts

    August 11, 2015 | Research

    This paper explores the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's Kiobel decision on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation in lower courts, and how lower courts have struggled to determine whether Kiobel permits U.S. corporations to be sued under the ATS for alleged torts in foreign countries.... Read More

  5. Federal Cases from Foreign Places: How the Supreme Court Has Limited Foreign Disputes From Flooding U.S. Courts

    October 21, 2014 | Research

    This collection of essays examines the shifting legal landscape of federal claims by foreign plaintiffs in the federal courts and focuses on the most common statutes invoked by foreign plaintiffs, as well as the threshold issues of personal jurisdiction and pleading standards that govern such suits.... Read More