New York - A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that three major companies cannot be held liable in the United States for crimes South Africa's former apartheid government committed, saying a recent US Supreme Court decision "plainly bars" such lawsuits.
The plaintiffs brought their suits under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law passed in 1789 that allowed non-US citizens to bring cases in US federal courts for violations of international law, such as piracy. In recent decades it took on renewed importance, employed to allow non-US citizens to sue for alleged human rights violations abroad.
But a recent Supreme Court decision found that "federal courts may not, under the ATS, recognize common-law causes of action for conduct occurring in the territory of another sovereign", Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote in the unanimous decision.
In April, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a federal court in New York could not hear claims by 12 Nigerians who accused Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell of complicity in a violent crackdown on protestors in Nigeria from 1992 to 1995.
The case, Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, was seen as a major victory for multinational corporations.
The appeals court ruling on Wednesday could mark the end for plaintiffs in the long-running case, who accused Daimler, Ford Motor Company and International Business Machines of facilitating decades of race-based crimes such as torture and extrajudicial killings because their South African subsidiaries sold products to it.
The automakers knew their vehicles were being used by South African forces to violently suppress protesters, while IBM knew its computers were being used to help strip black citizens of their rights, plaintiffs said.
The defendant companies can now request that the case be dismissed in district court, the ruling said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and representatives of the defendant companies were not immediately available.
Apartheid ended in 1994 when South Africa held its first all-race elections, bringing Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power.
More than 50 major corporations were initially sued in 2002, but the complaints were later amended to target fewer companies.
Supporters of the lawsuits included South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.