Current Cases

ExxonMobil -Villagers of Aceh Litigation

Status Past Case

Practice area Human Rights

Court U.S. District Court, District of Columbia

Case number 1:01-cv-01357

Overview

On May 15, 2023, eleven Indonesian citizens represented by Cohen Milstein settled a high-profile human rights lawsuit with ExxonMobil Corporation a week before a jury trial in the long running case was scheduled to begin. The confidential settlement brought an end to two decades of litigation.

The eleven Indonesian citizens alleged that ExxonMobil contracted to use Indonesian soldiers to guard its operations in the Aceh province of Indonesia. Instead, the families alleged, the soldiers inflicted horrific abuses on the villagers and their families, including murder, torture, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Plaintiffs further alleged that these abuses occurred at or near Exxon’s sprawling operations and that the soldiers who committed the abuses were engaged in providing security for Exxon when they physically abused, sexually assaulted, tortured, and murdered their family members.

On August 2, 2022, the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an 86-page opinion that largely denied ExxonMobil Corporation’s motion for summary judgment. In the ruling, the court found that most of ExxonMobil’s arguments were “entirely meritless.”

Case Background

Plaintiffs, eleven villagers from rural Aceh, Indonesia, filed this lawsuit in June 2001. For over 20 years they sought to hold ExxonMobil, the world’s most powerful and profitable corporation, responsible for the sexual assault, wrongful death, battery and other abuses inflicted upon them and their families by the military guards they allege were engaged by Exxon to provide security at its enormously profitable Arun gas fields. Four Plaintiffs and several witnesses have died in the interim.

Defendants asked the Court to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims nine times. See Dkt. 13 (motion to dismiss, denied at Dkt. 103); Dkt. 125 (motion to dismiss amended complaint, denied at Dkt. 136); Dkt. 268(motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, denied at Dkt. 339); Dkt. 269 (motion for summary judgment, denied at Dkt. 366); Dkt. 389 (motion to dismiss, denied by D.C. Circuit at Dkt. 421); Dkt. 426 (motion to dismiss, denied at Dkt. 454); Dkt. 468 (motion to dismiss second amended complaint, denied at Dkt. 512); Dkt. 633 (motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, denied Dkt. 645); Dkt. 818 (motion for summary judgment, denied Dkt. 845).

When it denied ExxonMobil’s first summary judgment motion, the District Court held that the abuses inflicted by the security guards were foreseeable (“there is sufficient evidence that EMOI should have known that the military security posed undue risks to local Indonesians near its Arun gas venture”) and that there was sufficient evidence that EMOI requested security forces who were “dedicated exclusively” to its operations and had a “right to control” those security forces. Dkt. 365 at 12-23.

When it denied ExxonMobil’s final motion for summary judgment, the District Court pointedly stated, “With only limited exceptions, defendants remaining arguments – about causation, quantifiable loss, ExxonMobil’s liability, and due process – are entirely meritless.” (Pg. 3 – 4) The Court repeatedly found that ExxonMobil’s characterizations of the evidence was “wrong” or “simply wrong.” (P 37, 45, 46, 72)

The District Court carefully evaluated the evidence presented by the Plaintiffs – including close to 400 documentary exhibits and deposition testimony from 43 depositions – and concluded that Plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to proceed to trial. Examples are summarized below:

  • Jane Doe I alleged she was assaulted in 2001 when she was eight months pregnant by a soldier who, among other things “forced her to jump up and down repeatedly.” (Pg. 33) She identified the soldier as one of the soldiers assigned to ExxonMobil, and her testimony was corroborated by a witness who waited daily for the school bus outside ExxonMobil’s facility and could confirm identifying information. (p.33) The Court found that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the soldier was one who was tasked with providing security for defendants” and that there was a sufficient “connection between the soldier’s wrongdoing and his employment relationship with defendants.”
  • Jane Doe II alleged that her husband was shot in 2000 while working in his rice paddy by members of ExxonMobil’s security personnel. The Court wrote “Defendants argue there ‘is no evidence’ connecting the shooting to defendants. They are wrong.” (Pg. 37)
  • Jane Doe III’s husband “was a traveling fish merchant who regularly stopped” at a market “where Exxon’s Bachelor Camp was located.” (Pg. 44) She presented evidence from an eyewitness who had worked at ExxonMobil’s “Bachelor Camp” facility and who operated a small kiosk nearby. After reviewing testimony about the actions by guards at Bachelor Camp and the death of John Doe IX, the Court ruled that “[a] reasonable jury could find that the soldiers who killed John Doe IX were the same soldiers assigned to guard Bachelor Camp” and “that defendants negligently hired and supervised.” (Pg. 44)
  • Jane Doe IV presented testimony from two eyewitnesses who recognized the soldiers who shot her husband as he worked in his rice paddy as the same soldiers at ExxonMobil’s gate who had often bullied the boys on their way to and from school (p46). The Court’s opinion explains that “eyewitnesses recognized the soldiers from Cluster 4” (where ExxonMobil was operating), “where they worked inside and outside the fence.” (Pg. 46). Based on its review of the evidence, the Court ruled that “[a] reasonable jury could find that the soldiers who murdered Jane Doe IV’s husband were the same soldiers that defendants negligently hired and supervised.” (Pg. 47)
  • Jane Doe V: The Court cited testimony that “[s]ometime in January 2001, John Doe I went missing. Eventually, after several days, soldiers returned John Doe I to his home. When he arrived home, John Doe I was wearing only his underwear, his hand had been cut off, and he was missing an eye.” (Pg. 47) After reviewing evidence of statements by John Doe I that he was taken “by soldiers working at Point A” (a central location for ExxonMobil’s operations), the Court ruled that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the soldiers who abducted and tortured John Doe worked at Point A and provided security for defendants.”
  • John Doe VII “alleged that, in January 2001, he was accosted by members of ExxonMobil’s security personnel’ who took him inside of a warehouse at an ExxonMobil-operated facility and beat him severely before releasing him the next day.” (Pg. 69) Plaintiffs presented evidence from two eyewitnesses, including one who was held with him overnight by ExxonMobil security in a warehouse used by ExxonMobil. (Pg. 70) The Court noted that the witnesses “even identified the specific soldiers by name” and found the Defendants contentions that there was no “firsthand evidence linking his injuries to defendants” to be “meritless.” (Pg. 69)

Although the case was to be tried in the District of Columbia, Indonesian law applied to Plaintiffs’ claims and was applied by the Court. The case set numerous legal precedents during its 20 year history, during which it saw two trips to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (decided January 2007 and July 2011) and one trip to the Supreme Court (certiorari was denied in 2008). Each time, novel issues of foreign policy impact, extraterritorial jurisdiction, and choice of law were briefed and considered by the Court of Appeals. Agnieszka Fryszman argued and won the first appeal. She was joined by co-counsel Paul Hoffman in arguing and winning the second appeal. In 2007,Exxon filed a petition for certiorari, but after the U.S. Solicitor General recommended the petition be denied, the US Supreme Court declined Exxon’s petition for certiorari.

Agnieszka Fryszman and her small, but dedicated Cohen Milstein legal team led the hard-fought litigation, handling the discovery, trial court briefing, appellate briefing, appeals court argument and Supreme Court practice, against a formidable, deep-pocketed defense. They were joined by co-counsel Paul Hoffman, Anthony DiCaprio and Terry Collingsworth.