It was no coincidence that a lawsuit filed against Coca Cola this February in New York City’s federal court coincided with the release of a documentary called “The Coca Cola Case.” The documentary featured the plaintiffs lawyers in the case—concerning allegations of violence against workers at a Guatemala bottling facility—and five others like it in Turkey and Colombia.
It didn’t seem to matter that federal appellate courts in New York and Atlanta had already dismissed all five of the earlier lawsuits, or that the alleged violence in Guatemala was perpetrated by individuals not affiliated with Coke. It also didn’t seem to matter that a judge had sanctioned the plaintiffs lawyers for violating a confidentiality order involving settlement discussions. The documentary continues to play in North America, Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere, bringing additional publicity and pressure against the company.
Welcome to the Wild West of transnational tort cases, where what happens inside the courtroom is often overshadowed by what happens outside. Old-fashioned motions and pleadings are now accompanied by public-relations campaigns complete with documentaries, community organizing, political lobbying and efforts to drive down stock prices of companies and multinationals with a U.S. presence. It’s all part of an effort to inflict maximum punishment on companies that choose to fight, trying to force them into lucrative settlements for alleged conduct overseas, and to pressure foreign courts in cases filed abroad.
Plaintiffs lawyers are filing scores of cases in U.S. and foreign courts against companies in connection with their foreign operations, particularly in emerging markets. The cases filed here often rely on the Alien Tort Statute, an 18th century artifact that allows non-U.S. nationals to file lawsuits in federal courts for certain claimed violations of international law.
One current lawsuit in Indianapolis against Bridgestone/Firestone involves claims of alleged forced labor on a rubber plantation in Liberia. Plaintiffs lawyers have pursued a vigorous campaign that includes video clips, graphic allegations of abuse by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), lobbying for city resolutions, and calls for the National Football League to cease airing company commercials during games.
Lawsuits have been filed in California against Occidental Petroleum for violence by the Colombian military (allegedly directed by Occidental) near an oil pipeline, for the company’s alleged complicity in human-rights violations by paramilitary units guarding a pipeline in Ecuador, and for alleged environmental harms in Peru. Accompanying the suits have been calls for boycotts, staged protests and in the Peru lawsuit a documentary narrated by actress Daryl Hannah.
Some of these transnational tort cases are tainted by fraud. Three separate U.S. courts have now found fraud and unfairness in proceedings against Dole, the Dow Chemical Company and others, arising from the alleged exposure of workers to pesticides on banana plantations in Nicaragua. This fraud includes fabricating injuries, submitting false evidence, conspiring with corrupt foreign laboratories to bolster false claims, suborning perjury, and helping create foreign litigation regimes so overtly hostile to U.S. companies that they violate the most basic notions of due process. Some of the cases are still pending.
A new study I have overseen on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, “Think Globally, Sue Locally,” shows that these transnational lawsuits frequently involve tactics that fall into four categories. There is the media campaign, including full-length films and mini-documentaries, and heavy reliance on print, radio, television and the Internet, including social media websites and shared video sites. There are also investment-related activities, such as stock divestment drives, pressuring institutional investors, feeding harmful information to Wall Street analysts, and attending and participating in shareholder meetings.
There are also political efforts. These include advocating for and testifying at Congressional hearings (increasingly being held as a trial date approaches), soliciting politicians to advocate for the plaintiffs, lobbying for the passage of local city resolutions, and in overseas litigation using political pressure to influence susceptible foreign courts.
Finally, community organizing in the form of protests, boycotts, letter writing, on-campus efforts and other techniques are undertaken to bring pressure on companies.
There is evidence these tactics are effective. In one well-known Alien Tort case, Talisman Energy, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, spent millions of dollars in local development programs in Sudan, assisted in the efforts to bring peace to the civil war ravaged nation, and prevailed in a lawsuit in New York arising from its investment in an oil consortium there. (The case involved allegations the company was complicit in human-rights violations committed by the government.) Yet Talisman succumbed to the political and litigation pressure, selling its interest to an Indian state-controlled oil and gas company rather than continuing to operate.
Companies with U.S. ties considering even relatively small overseas investments must be conscious that a perceived failure to adhere to certain social expectations can lead to high-profile, multimillion dollar lawsuits, and with them an accompanying set of highly aggressive tactics aimed at decimating the company’s image.
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.