Legal Reference: Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell)

Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. is the legal case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether corporations can be sued for violations of international human rights law.

Kiobel was brought by 12 plaintiffs from the Ogoni region of Nigeria against Royal Dutch/Shell, more familiar as Shell Oil, for its alleged complicity in serious human rights abuses. The plaintiffs allege that Shell aided and abetted the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the early 1990s leading to their arbitrary arrest, detention and torture and, in the case of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, his wrongful execution. During this period, the Ogoni people supported a nonviolent movement to protest Shell’s despoliation of the Niger Delta and to demand that Shell and the Nigerian government halt the destruction and share the benefits of Nigeria’s oil wealth with the poverty-stricken Ogoni people. The plaintiffs allege that Shell provided financial and other assistance to the brutal Nigerian military, and worked together with the military, to target the plaintiffs for oppression and violence due to their association with this movement. Dr. Kiobel was executed alongside other well-known Ogoni leaders (the “Ogoni Nine”) after a sham trial that was condemned by foreign governments, including the U.S. and the U.K., as well as human rights organizations, and that directly led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. federal court in New York in 2002 pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute, a federal law that allows suits for violations of international law, including serious human rights abuses. The plaintiffs alleged that Shell was liable for its complicity in torture, extrajudicial killings, and crimes against humanity, among other abuses. In 2010, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a surprising decision in which it ruled that Shell could not be sued because corporations were not subject to international human rights law. Judge Leval, a respected senior judge on the court, dissented from this decision in a blistering 88-page opinion. Judges of the Second Circuit split evenly on whether to rehear the case, leaving the decision standing, and several judges dissented from this result as well. Four other U.S. Courts of Appeals have now disagreed with the Second Circuit, ruling that corporations can be sued.

On February 28, 2012, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Kiobel case, which will ultimately decide whether corporations – like human beings – can be sued for their participation in gross human rights abuses, or whether they enjoy a unique immunity from liability. At the Supreme Court, the Kiobel plaintiffs were represented by Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris Hoffman & Harrison LLP, and Carey D’Avino of Eaton & Van Winkle LLP. On March 5, 2012, the Court ordered the case to be re-briefed this spring and re-argued in the fall of 2012.

See SCOTUSblog's coverage of the Kiobel case.


Transcript of Supreme Court oral arguments in Kiobel

Press release from Kiobel plaintiffs’ attorneys

Basic case documents:

Parties’ briefs at the Supreme Court:

Supreme Court amicus briefs in support of the Kiobel plaintiffs:

Petition for certiorari at the Supreme Court:

Opinions at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals:

Opinions from other Courts of Appeals: