Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Eleventh Circuit Invokes Iqbal in Affirming Dismissal of Alien Tort Claims Against Coca-Cola and Bottlers"

Allison Frankel at The AmLaw Litigation Daily wrote about the Eleventh Circuit's published decision released Tuesday on the Alien Tort Statute. The Eleventh Circuit's decision in Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola Company (06-15851) can be found here. The article is below:

Eleventh Circuit Invokes Iqbal in Affirming Dismissal of Alien Tort Claims Against Coca-Cola and Bottlers

In a 34-page ruling that one defense lawyer describes as "a sweeping review of the Alien Tort Statute," a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a Miami federal district court's dismissal of four cases claiming that Coca-Cola and its two Colombian bottling subsidiaries were liable for the murder and torture of trade unionists by Colombian paramilitary forces. Citing the Supreme Court's now infamous May 2009 ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the court concluded that the plaintiffs' complaints "fail to sufficiently plead factual allegations" to establish subject matter jurisdiction and state a valid claim.

The plaintiffs, represented by veteran Alien Tort Claims lawyer Terry Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer, alleged in four lawsusits that two Coca-Cola bottlers, Panamco and Bebidas, collaborated with paramilitary forces in what the Eleventh Circuit called "the systematic intimidation, kidnapping, detention, torture, and murder of Colombian trade unionists." The complaints didn't accuse Coke or its bottlers of direct responsibility for the crimes, but sought compensation under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act for the corporations' alleged aiding and abetting of the paramilitary forces."These were heinous accusations," said Faith Gay of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, who has represented Coca-Cola since the suits were first filed in 2001. (Quinn partner Kathleen Sullivan worked with her at the appellate stage). "Coca-Cola was four levels removed from what was happening. We knew nothing about these events until we were sued....It was defamation through legal pleadings." Gay said the appellate opinion establishes that Alien Tort plaintiffs "must, in order to state a claim, show links at every level."Added Robert Brochin of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who represents Panamco: "The ruling reiterates that before you can file a lawsuit, particularly one brought under the banner of human rights abuses, you have to be able to plead facts that form a plausible legal theory.

The plaintiffs in this case did not do that." The third defendant, Bebidas, was represented throughout the litigation by William McCaughan of K&L Gates. The three firms, which split the defendants' time when the case was argued last February, worked well together, said Gay and Brochin. Coca-Cola was dismissed as a defendant in a 2003 ruling by the district court; the bottlers in a 2006 ruling. " We were really happy to keep both Coca-Cola and the bottlers out" in the Eleventh Circuit ruling, Gay said.

Plaintiffs lawyer Collingsworth told the Litigation Daily that the circuit court's reliance on Iqbal is troubling, given that the Supreme Court didn't issue its ruling until after this case was argued. "Iqbal drastically changes the pleading standard," he said. "At a minimum, we should get the chance to replead." In any event, he added, he plans to file new cases that make similar accusations against Coca-Cola and the Colombian bottlers. "There's nothing in what the court said to exonerate the bottlers or Coca-Cola in what happened," he said. "The court took a technical legal path."

--Alison Frankel


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