Asset Partitioning, Legal Personhood, and its Implications for Corporate Civil Liability

What entities can be liable under the alien tort statute? At a minimum, it has been established that natural persons and foreign sovereigns can be successfully sued under the ATS. Beyond that, there is, to put it mildly, quite a bit of disagreement, most of it centered around whether or not a juridical person can be a validly named defendant alongside humans and nations.

The legal historians’ amicus brief [PDF] in support of the cert petition in Kiobel addresses this question in the context of the common law’s historical approach to questions of liability, arguing that “the Second Circuit erred in concluding that ‘who is liable for what’ is a matter of customary international law,” and that, in the United States, entities are liable for their agents’ torts without regard to the source of the substantive norm of conduct, and this applies to the ATS no less than it would any other tort statute. Although I largely agree with the brief, I wanted to expand upon some of its arguments here, and, in particular, to challenge the claims that, under international law, a “corporation” is a distinct and insular category that can or ought to be afforded its own set of rules. Questions of corporate personality — and for that matter, natural personhood — were not cognizable on the international plane at the time of the ATS’s enactment, as distinctions between sub-state entities could only be made through a state’s domestic law. Accordingly, the question of whether a non-state actor has committed a violation of international law is entirely independent of how a state’s domestic law assigns legal personhood to its subjects.

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