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Judge Allows Historic Human Rights Lawsuit Against ExxonMobil to Proceed to Trial

August 2, 2022

After 20 Years of Litigation, Victims’ Stories of Abuses by Security Forces Finally Told

WASHINGTON DC – A federal judge today released a detailed and pointed 86-page opinion that largely denied ExxonMobil Corporation’s motion for summary judgment in a long-running human rights lawsuit, brought by eleven Indonesian citizens.  This decision paves the way for trial in the hotly contested case.

The Plaintiffs, represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, allege that ExxonMobil contracted to use Indonesian soldiers to provide security at ExxonMobil’s natural gas facility in Aceh, Indonesia. The Court ruled that Plaintiffs eyewitness testimony and ExxonMobil’s own internal documents would allow a reasonable jury to find that these security personnel subjected the Plaintiffs or their loved ones to assault, torture, extrajudicial killing, and other abuses.

In issuing the ruling, Judge Royce C. Lamberth’s 86-page opinion 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)

“We are gratified that the Court was moved by the evidence we presented from more than a dozen eyewitnesses and agreed that this important human rights case against ExxonMobil should move forward to trial,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, attorney for the plaintiffs and chair of Cohen Milstein’s Human Rights Practice. “This case has been up and down to the Supreme Court and tied up in pretrial litigation for over 20 years. This is a big turning point for our clients who have stuck it out for so long in the hopes of obtaining justice. We look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury.”

The opinion details that ExxonMobil executives were aware of the Indonesian military’s reputation. For example, during this period, atrocities committed by the Indonesian military were widely reported in international press, including by Business Week’s Singapore Bureau.  “Defendants’ executives have acknowledged their awareness of the military’s human rights abuses.” (Pg. 5)

The Court also found that the record reflects ExxonMobil’s increasing involvement and influence in the military’s security operations. By December 1999, the soldiers were “dedicated exclusively” to providing security for these operations. (Pg. 8) By late 2000, approximately 1,000 soldiers were assigned to defendants’ Indonesian oil operations. (Pg. 9)

Most importantly, the Court devoted the bulk of its opinion to the evidence presented in support of ExxonMobil’s liability for each Plaintiffs’ injury, explaining that under Indonesian law (which is the law governing the claims):

“For the direct liability claims, there must be sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that soldiers who harmed plaintiffs were the same ones that defendants negligently hired, retained, or supervised. For the indirect liability claims, there must be sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that 1) “an employment or representation relationship” existed between the soldier and defendants (or that the soldier was in facet assigned to guard defendants’ operations), and 2) that were is a “functional connection” between the soldier’s wrongful act and the work that they were directed to perform.”” (Pg. 33)

Examples of Plaintiff testimonies 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)

Other Case Background

During his confirmation, Justice Kavanaugh described the ExxonMobil case as one of the ten most significant cases heard during his tenure on the D.C. Circuit. Read more about the case here.

About Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC

Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is a premier U.S. plaintiffs’ law firm, handling high-profile and often precedent-setting litigation, including cross-border Human Rights litigation. With over 100 attorneys across the country, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, New York, NY, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Philadelphia, PA, and Raleigh, NC. For additional information, please visit www.cohenmilstein.com or call (202) 408-4600.