December 9, 2013
US Supreme court hears Dirty War case
Justices to decide on jurisdiction in suit launched by victims against Mercedes Benz
Disappearances allegedly perpetrated during the last Argentine dictatorship by automaker Mercedes Benz will be discussed today at the US Supreme Court as part of a civil suit launched by victims and relatives against the subsidiary of Germany’s Daimler.
The highest tribunal in the United States will hear from Daimler’s lawyers and Terrence Collingsworth, who is representing the plaintiffs. A representative of the US Justice Department will deliver his opinion as an amicus curiae (friend of the Court).
Each side will have 30 minutes to present its case. Then the justices will ask questions from each side.
The case is part of a trend in which the US Supreme Court is trying to set clear guidelines on whether multinational corporations can be sued in US courts for alleged human rights abuses abroad.
In a case decided earlier this year, the justices issued a unanimous decision that limited the ability of human rights plaintiffs to invoke the 1789 Alien Tort Statute when suing companies over alleged collusion with violent foreign governments.
In the Daimler case, 22 workers or relatives of workers at an Argentine plant operated by Mercedes Benz sued over its alleged conduct.
They claimed the company had punished plant workers viewed by managers as union agitators and that it had worked alongside the Argentine military and police forces. Daimler denies the allegations.
The Daimler case focuses on whether a US court has the authority to hear a case against a foreign corporation “solely on the fact that an indirect corporate subsidiary performs services on behalf of the defendant” in the state where the federal lawsuit was filed, which in this instance was California.
The plaintiffs said California was a suitable place to file the lawsuit because Mercedes Benz USA, an indirect subsidiary of Daimler, distributes Daimler cars to dealerships in the state.
A federal judge in the Northern District of California said the relationship between Daimler and the subsidiary was not sufficient.
The San Francisco-based Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, outlining in its decision the ways in which the companies worked together on such issues as signage, prices and vehicle servicing standards.
Because the subsidiary’s activities “were sufficiently important” to Daimler, and Daimler also had “the right to substantially control” the other company’s activities, the appeals court concluded that there were “pervasive contacts.”
If the Supreme Court accepts the jursidiction, the investigations will immediately begin to investigate the company’s complicity in forcibly disappearing workers from its González Catán platn.
A hub of activism
Families of victims first filed suit in 1999 in Germany against Juan Tasselkraut, head of Mercedes Benz in Argentina, for cooperating with the dictatorship. However, the German courts ruled there was not enough evidence to sentence him for the disappearance of around a dozen workers.
Back then, these crimes could not be judged in Argentina because the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws were in force. After the negative decision in Germany, the victims decided to take the case to the US.
The Mercedes Benz plant was in the eye of storm during the seventies. Union activism grew there and in 1975, when workers were demanding the reinstatement of some colleagues, the left-wing armed group Montoneros kidnapped Heinrich Metz, the man in charge of production in the plant.
Following the 1976 military coup 16 union leaders were forcibly disappeared and only two survived. The majority of them were kidnapped while they were working at the factory and taken to the military garrison of Campo de Mayo, one of the biggest clandestine detention centres of the Argentine dictatorship.
In 2001, in the so-called Trials for Truth in La Plata, Tasselkraut was called to testify. When he was asked if he considered that the rise in productivity and the decrease in labour conflict within the plant was somehow connected to the repression launched by the dictatorship, he replied: “Well, miracles don’t exist.”
There have been several proposals to begin examining the so-called civilian complicity during the military regime that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983.
The head of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) Horacio Verbitsky has suggested that a truth commission should be set up to investigate the role businesses played in forcibly disappearing people during the 1970s. A decision from the US Supreme Court on this civil lawsuit could reignite the discussion within the country.
Herald staff with Reuters