Saldana v. Occidental Petroleum, No. 12-55484 (9th Cir. Dec. 15, 2014) [click for opinion]

Defendant is a U.S.-based petroleum corporation with a Colombian subsidiary that owns and operates an oil pipeline in Colombia. In the early 2000s, the Colombian government was dealing with conflict with several leftist guerilla groups. The subsidiary's pipeline ran through guerilla territory, and was regularly under attacks from guerilla forces trying to disrupt the Colombian economy. In response, the United States implemented a formal program to secure the pipeline whereby it provided Colombia with $99 million in funding, as well as actual training and oversight of the Colombian military unit tasked with securing the pipeline. Defendant provided $6.3 million in private funding at the same time and for the same purposes.

Plaintiffs are family members of three union leaders who were killed in 2004 by soldiers in the military unit tasked with securing the oil pipeline. The soldiers were found guilty of the murders in Colombian courts, but the military unit was absolved of any responsibility. Plaintiffs filed an action against Defendant in California district court under the Alien Tort Statute and California state law, seeking to hold Defendant responsible for the murders. Plaintiff's theory of liability was that Defendant's financial support gave it operational control over the military unit, and that Defendant knew that the military unit would engage in war crimes against civilians.

The district court dismissed Plaintiff's action as based on nonjusticiable political questions, holding Plaintiff's theory of liability would apply with equal force to the United States Government, which provided money at the same time and for the same reason.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, finding that Defendant's partial funding for the military unit was inextricably bound to the United States' foreign policy decision to provide funding at the same time for the same purpose. The Ninth Circuit held it would be implausible to conclude that Defendant exercised more control over the military unit than the United States, which provided 15 times the funding, plus training and oversight. Any judgment in favor of Plaintiffs would necessarily question and condemn the United States' foreign policy decision to provide military aid to Colombia. The Ninth Circuit also rejected Plaintiff's argument that the State Department's failure to submit a statement of interest in the action indicated that there was no conflict, holding that the Department's silence was a neutral factor.

Christina Wong of the San Francisco office contributed to this summary.