BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – After more than a decade of trying to use an archaic law to punish U.S. corporations for alleged wrongdoing overseas, organized labor lost the first such case ever to go before a jury.
But union attorneys say they won’t be deterred by the outcome of the case against Drummond Ltd., and lawyers for both labor and corporate interests say rulings on appeals stemming from the trial may be more important in the long run than the verdict itself.
A jury on Thursday rejected claims that Alabama-based Drummond coal was to blame for the killing of three union leaders in Colombia in 2001. Families of the dead men and their union alleged the company was behind the gunshot killings by paramilitary forces.
Jurors sided with Alabama-based Drummond, which denied any involvement with the killings or with militia forces.
The case was the first one against a U.S. corporation to make it to trial under the Alien Torts Claims Act, which lets foreigners file suit in U.S. courts for alleged wrongdoing overseas.
An attorney involved in another suit said the Drummond case showed the ‘serious problems’ created by using U.S. courts to review conduct in foreign countries.
‘Hopefully this outcome will cause others to realize it’s not enough to make wild, unsubstantiated allegations and hope juries will be swayed,’ said Robert A. Mittelstaedt of Jones Day in San Francisco.
Mittelstaedt’s firm represents Chevron Corp., which is being sued over alleged abuses in Nigeria.
Here, the plaintiffs attorney, Terry Collingsworth, promised an appeal of the Drummond verdict. He said he disagreed that the jury decision would endanger other, similar cases filed under the more than 200-year-old law.
‘The facts in this case were the facts,’ said Collingsworth. ‘But it doesn’t affect any other case because the law is still letting them go forward.’
Collingsworth is executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which represented families and the union of the dead men in the case against Drummond.
Drummond attorney Bill Jeffress said the jury’s decision showed the folly of groups trying to use the law to pursue U.S. multinationals and ‘might discourage overuse of this statute.’
Eventual appellate rulings from the Drummond case will likely help determine the course of future cases under law, according to Jeffress and Collingsworth.
The law was originally passed in 1789 as a way to combat piracy.
For the families to win in the Drummond case, a judge told jurors they had to believe Drummond committed a war crime in Colombia by knowingly assisting gunmen who shot the union leaders to death in 2001.
The panel rejected the claim, ruling that neither Drummond nor its Colombian president were liable for the slayings.
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