Human Rights Practice Readies for Trial Against ExxonMobil for Alleged Abuses in Indonesia

Shareholder Advocate Winter 2023

January 30, 2023

By Kate Fitzgerald

Holding large, formidable corporations accountable to achieve economic and social justice for our client—even if it takes decades—is a hallmark of our work at Cohen Milstein.

No better example is our representation of 11 Indonesian citizens in Doe, Aceh, Indonesia v. ExxonMobil Corporation (D.D.C.). For more than 21 years, the plaintiffs in this high-profile cross-border lawsuit have sought justice from ExxonMobil Corporation for human rights abuses they allegedly suffered at the hands of ExxonMobil’s security personnel in Aceh, Indonesia.

On March 24, 2023, they will finally get their day in court, when a U.S. federal jury trial is set to start.

Originally filed in 2001, the lawsuit alleges that ExxonMobil used Indonesian soldiers to provide security at the company’s sprawling natural gas operation in the largely rural Aceh province. The lawsuit also alleges that these same soldiers physically abused, sexually assaulted, tortured, or murdered plaintiffs or family members who lived in the surrounding villages.

The federal lawsuit addresses many novel issues of law and jurisdiction. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case twice, in 2007 and 2011, ultimately concluding that plaintiffs could move forward to prove that ExxonMobil bore liability for these atrocities under Indonesian law. In 2007, the Supreme Court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the executive branch on ExxonMobil’s petition for certiorari, which subsequently led the Court to deny the petition.

Despite years of aggressive defense, during which ExxonMobil moved to stay the case at least seven times at the district court, court of appeals, and Supreme Court levels, plaintiffs persevered. All the while, the litigants grew older.

Then, as the world quarantined against COVID-19, the district court, seemingly inspired by technological innovations widely adopted during the pandemic, agreed that plaintiffs and their eyewitnesses could provide testimony from the other side of the world via videoconference. At summary judgment, plaintiffs submitted these long-distance depositions, along with close to 400 exhibits, to support their claims.

On August 2, 2022, the district court issued a detailed and pointed 86-page opinion denying ExxonMobil Corporation’s motion for summary judgment, stating that “with only limited exceptions, defendants remaining arguments—about causation, quantifiable loss, ExxonMobil’s liability, and due process—are entirely meritless.” The court repeatedly found that ExxonMobil’s characterizations of the evidence was “wrong” or “simply wrong.” Furthermore, the court published for the first time the testimony of the victims and witnesses about the horror. After almost every account, the court stated, a reasonable jury could conclude the “connection between the soldier’s wrongdoing and his employment relationship with defendants.”

Agnieszka Fryszman, co-chair of Cohen Milstein’s Human Rights practice, and her small but dedicated legal team have tenaciously pursued this hard-fought litigation against a deep-pocketed defense, handling discovery, trial court briefing, appellate briefing, appeals court argument, and Supreme Court practice.