A Critique of a Law and Economics Analysis of the Alien Tort Statute

A few days ago, I was interested to see a new draft paper out that discussed the law and economics perspective of corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute. Corporate Liability for Extraterritorial Torts Under the Alien Tort Statute and Beyond: An Economic Analysis, by Alan O. Sykes, focuses on an important part of ATS litigation, and one which so far has been relatively neglected — the economic impact of ATS suits.

Unfortunately, I came away from the article a bit disappointed; although Sykes accurately summarizes some economic concerns that are theoretically raised by the ATS, there is close to no examination of actual corporate behavior. I was frustrated with its near total disconnect from any specific applications of the ATS, as only a single example from actual ATS litigation is used to illustrate the potential economic downsides of corporate liability: that of Talisman’s withdrawal from Sudan and replacement by Chinese corporations. Actual dollar figures associated with defending ATS suits, or total amounts of judgments or settlements that have been paid under ATS cases, are never brought up.

My major complaint would be that, because the article simply focuses on the theoretical costs caused by corporate liability under the ATS, with little or no evidence as to the actual costs that have been experienced in ATS suits, Sykes’ analysis is almost equally applicable to the question of multinational corporate liability in any situation, not just Alien Tort Statute case. In his article, Sykes identifies five general economic costs:

  1. Litigation is expensive
  2. This is a confusing area of the law, which means judges are likely to end up making decisions that are biased against big, faceless corporations
  3. Allowing multinational corporations to be sued for allegedly bad things they have done can piss off foreign governments, either where the MNC is headquartered or where the bad acts took place
  4. Allowing corporations with connections to the U.S. to be sued is harmful because it gives a competitive benefit to corporations that do not do business in the U.S., and so cannot be sued
  5. Allowing corporations with U.S. connections to be sued will cause them to engage in expensive restructuring to create subsidiaries that have the competitive benefit of not being able to be sued in the U.S.

These costs are not really unique to the ATS context. It is not that any of these costs aren’t real, but Sykes never discusses how each of these general economic concerns is particularly applicable in the context of the Alien Tort Statute. For instance, although the first point is an important consideration for any type of litigation, the article does not provide any evidence that the costs of ATS litigation are more concerning than the costs associated with, say, products liability, or Title VII cases. Plus, as Sykes himself admits, a large proportion of corporate ATS cases feature up to a dozen different claims in addition to any ATS -based claim for relief. If the ATS didn’t exist, it doesn’t mean these all the ATS cases would cease to exist as well — just that they woudn’t have brought ATS claims. And, other than in a handful of high profile exceptions, the ATS portions of those cases don’t cause any significant increase in the overall litigation costs. As Sykes also admits, U.S. Courts are already concerned with the potential costs of baseless litigation, and have implemented doctrines intended to curtail the expenses associated with such cases. I am all in favor of Twombly’s heightened pleading standard applying to ATS suits, but the record of ATS litigation thus far — with an overwhelming majority of ATS cases being dismissed — suggests that this is already occurring, and that litigation costs in ATS suits are no higher than for any other given type of litigation.

As for the second point, regarding the risk of judicial bias against corporations, there is zero evidence that this is a cost particularly likely to occur in the context of ATS litigation. Given the existence of a single plaintiff victory at trial in corporate ATS cases — and perhaps a dozen settlements, many of which heavily favored the corporations — the record would suggest that ATS suits do not feature any problematic bias against corporate defendants.
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