Supreme Court Allows Drug Test Case against Pfizer to Proceed

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2010 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Allows Drug Test Case against Pfizer to Proceed


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer allegedly conducted nonconsensual drug tests on 200 Nigerian children, some of whom died. The Supreme Court Tuesday allowed a civil lawsuit against Pfizer to go forward.

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a case examining whether drug giant Pfizer could be sued in an American court for allegedly conducting nonconsensual drug tests on 200 Nigerian children in 1996. The action allows the case to move toward a trial.

Eleven of the children died, and many others were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, or brain-damaged, according to court documents.

At issue in the Supreme Court appeal was whether the surviving children and relatives of the children were entitled to file a lawsuit in New York seeking to hold Pfizer responsible.

Usually, such a suit would be filed in Nigeria. Lawyers for the children complained that Nigerian judges are corrupt and that the US court system holds the only promise of justice.

Law allowing suits by non-US citizens

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which empowers federal judges to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of the "law of nations."

Lawyers for Pfizer denied that the Nigeria experiments were conducted without the consent and knowledge of the children and their guardians. In addition, the lawyers argued that the children's case should be thrown out of court because the alleged drug experiments are not the precise type of international law violation covered under the ATS.

What made the high court appeal potentially significant is that the Supreme Court has declared that foreign plaintiffs may rely on the ATS to file lawsuits, but only in a few limited circumstances. The high court has not yet identified precisely which few cases may be brought and which may not.

Pfizer v. Abdullahi (09-34) offered an opportunity for the justices to offer guidance and clarification.

Multinational corporations increasingly targeted

The question is a major issue for multinational corporations, which have been increasingly targeted for ATS lawsuits by plaintiffs' lawyers.

In one, corporations that conducted business in South Africa during the time of apartheid were sued for allegedly helping to perpetuate the abuses of the former South African government. In another, a US oil company was sued under the ATS for its foreign subsidiary's alleged involvement with the Indonesian military in violations of international law.

"It is imperative that this court clarify that ATS suits cannot be brought against corporations based on mere vague allegations of involvement between the facilitating actor and the primary wrongdoer," wrote Jack Goldsmith, in a friend of the court brief on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce.

In the Nigeria drug experiment case, the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York disagreed with Pfizer's argument that the ATS does not apply. The appeals court voted 2 to 1 to allow the litigation to move forward. …

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