NEW YORK — Two automakers and a technology company cannot be held liable in the United States for abuses committed by South Africa’s government, a federal appeals court said Wednesday in a blow to class-action lawsuits that had tried to hold American, Canadian, and European companies liable for the claims of millions of people who say they suffered under apartheid.
The 2d US Circuit Court of Appeals said claims that subsidiaries of the companies are to blame for selling cars and computers to the South African government must be rejected. The Manhattan court left it to a lower court to formally toss the claims, the remnants of lawsuits that once named 78 diverse foreign and domestic corporations representing a broad spectrum of the international economy.
Lawsuits still sought to hold Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co., and IBM Corp. responsible for race-based injustices including rape, torture, and murder under apartheid, which ended two decades ago.
They said Daimler and Ford made military vehicles for the South African security forces and assisted security forces in identifying and torturing anti-apartheid leaders. The plaintiffs also accused IBM of providing computer equipment so the South African government could restrict black South Africans’ movements, track dissidents, and target individuals for repressive acts.
The appeals court based its ruling on a recent Supreme Court decision pertaining to the Alien Tort Statute, an obscure 1789 law originally enacted to prosecute pirates that was revived in recent decades to permit lawsuits in the United States against those who violate human rights abroad. The decision written by 2d Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes concluded that federal courts may not recognize common-law claims brought under the statute for conduct in another nation’s territory.
Lawyers on both sides did not immediately return messages for comment.
The latest twist in the case is among many since lawsuits were filed 11 years ago and consolidated in New York.
US District Judge John E. Sprizzo threw out the lawsuits in 2004, saying he did not have jurisdiction.
The 2d Circuit had reinstated the case in 2007, saying international interests should not always come first in human rights cases.