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‘Dirty war’ case gets cool reception

Lawyer Kevin Russell said California is a proper place to try an Argentine case.

Susan Walsh /Associated Press

Lawyer Kevin Russell said California is a proper place to try an Argentine case.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday did not seem to like the idea of US courts hearing lawsuits that accuse foreign companies of committing atrocities abroad.

Justices listened skeptically to arguments they should uphold a lower court decision to allow survivors of Argentina’s ‘‘dirty war’’ to sue the former DaimlerChrysler Corp. of Germany in California for alleged abuses in Argentina.

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Several seemed to think that would open US courts to lawsuits from around the world that may not have anything to do with issues that belong in US courts.

‘‘So if a Mercedes-Benz vehicle overturned in Poland and injured the Polish driver and passenger, suit for the design defect could be brought in California?’’ asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kevin Russell, lawyer for the victims from Argentina, said yes.

The plaintiffs allege Mercedes-Benz was complicit in the killing, torture, or kidnapping by the military of union auto workers during Argentina’s 1976-1983 conflict. Thousands were killed, kidnapped, or ‘‘disappeared,’’ including trade unionists, left-wing political activists, journalists, and intellectuals.

The suit says ‘‘kidnapping, detention and torture . . . were carried out by state security forces acting under the direction of and with material assistance’’ from Mercedes-Benz.

The suit said Daimler could be sued in California since its subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz USA, sold cars in that state. A federal judge threw the suit out; an appeals court let it go forward.

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