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
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
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. …