Alien Ambulance-Chasers; Contingent-Fee Lawyers Run Amuck

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 26, 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Alien Ambulance-Chasers; Contingent-Fee Lawyers Run Amuck

Byline: Daniel J. Popeo and Glenn G. Lammi, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Only in America could enterprising lawyers turn a 218-year old, 32-word statute meant to redress piracy into a weapon of mass tort litigation. This law is the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a tiny part of the larger 1789 Judiciary Act. Contingent-fee attorneys have commandeered this law and are using it to file massive lawsuits in U.S. courts on behalf of foreign plaintiffs against foreign defendants for alleged harm that occurred far outside our borders.

The suits not only needlessly clog our courts, but they also raise the fundamental question of who should make U.S. foreign-policy decisions: unelected judges and lawyers, or the legislative and executive branches? U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Henry Friendly in 1975 called the ATS a "legal Lohengrin .. no one seems to know whence it came." For nearly two centuries it laid fallow until it was given new life by a 1980 federal appeals court decision concluding that the ATS provides a private right to sue for violations of international law.

After that decision, ATS filings exploded. Until the mid-1990s most ATS plaintiffs were human-rights activists suing foreign individuals or foreign governments. Financial damage awards were rare, but the factually sympathetic cases successfully advanced the law in a pro-plaintiff direction. Eventually activists began suing private companies based on a highly novel vicarious liability theory because oil companies benefited from the protection of foreign soldiers or companies did business in apartheid-era South Africa, they had "aided and abetted" alleged foreign governments' ATS violations.

Once the focus shifted to deep-pocketed defendants, plaintiffs' lawyers took notice, and filed suits which further probed the limits of the ATS seeking virtually limitless liability. Aided by expansive decision-making of federal appeals courts, the tort lawyers conceived a startling ambition: to convert this obscure one-sentence jurisdictional provision into a source of modern-day mass tort liability.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court finally took up the issue of liability under the ATS. In Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, the Court stated that the law only gave federal courts jurisdiction over a very narrow set of cases involving aliens. The Court wrote strongly about its concern over the "collateral consequences" of ATS suits, especially how they could intrude upon the executive branch's conduct of foreign policy. The Sosa opinion didn't foreclose all ATS lawsuits. While it left the "door ajar," the Court instructed lower courts to conduct "vigilant doorkeeping," against intrusion on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

With the door ajar, ATS lawsuits continued to proliferate.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Alien Ambulance-Chasers; Contingent-Fee Lawyers Run Amuck


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?