The brief order is another major victory for multinationals doing business in the United States and who are vulnerable to U.S. courts.
Rio Tinto Plc is a British-Australian mining company with operations in a number of countries. A U.S. appeals court approved a suit using the Alien Tort Statute and arising out of conflict "on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea and the uprising against Rio Tinto in the late 1980s that resulted in the use of military force and many deaths."
Current and former residents of Bougainville filed the suit. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in San Francisco, eventually ruled for the Papuans, saying they could file their suit under the federal law, though there were some partial dissents.
"We conclude that the allegations are sufficient to state a war crimes claim," the prevailing opinion of the appeals court said. "The complaint alleges purposeful conduct undertaken by Rio Tinto with the intent to assist in the commission of violence, injury, and death, to the degree necessary to keep its mines open."
But last week in a unanimous judgment, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a suit filed by Nigerian immigrants who said oil companies abetted their torture in their country.
The prevailing opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts said: "Passed as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the ATS is a jurisdictional statute that creates no causes of action. It permits federal courts to 'recognize private claims [for a modest number of international law violations] under federal common law."
Monday, in a one paragraph order, the Supreme Court vacated, or threw out, the appellate ruling in the Papuan case, and sent the case back to the appeals court "for further consideration in light of Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.," the Nigerian ruling.
Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the Papuan case but gave no reason for her recusal.
Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the Nigerian decision, saying it helps multinationals doing business in the United States and vulnerable to U.S. courts..
"The U.S. Supreme Court's decision today ensures that trial lawyers cannot continue to use the American judicial system to expose global businesses to frivolous and costly lawsuits," said Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber. "Today's decision helps to ensure that America will continue to be an attractive place to do business and removes barriers for companies looking to do business throughout the world."