In Alberto Justo Rodriguez Licea and others v Curacao Drydock Co, Inc, the Singapore High Court dismissed an appeal against the enforcement of a multi-million dollar judgment issued in the United States awarding damages to Cuban plaintiffs under the US Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

In addition to providing useful guidance on the defences which may be raised to resist enforcement of a foreign judgment in Singapore, the judgment is reflective of a worldwide trend whereby courts are increasingly prepared to hear claims that corporations have violated human rights and to ensure that victims receive compensation.

The Alien Tort Statute

Under the ATS, US federal district courts have jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”. The ATS permits US federal courts to hear claims by foreign plaintiffs involving violations of well-defined and universally-accepted norms of international law.

The ATS has been relied upon by plaintiffs alleging that corporations have violated international law (as in this case), or have aided and abetted violations committed by others. Most ATS claims which have been brought against corporations to date have focused on allegations of harm occurring outside the US and many of these have involved allegations of gross human rights abuses, torture and war crimes.

The Curacao Drydock Case

In the Curacao Drydock case, a group of Cuban plaintiffs alleged that they were victims of a forced labour scheme in Cuba which had been perpetrated by the defendant, a company incorporated in Curacao. In October 2008, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Miami Division (the US Court) gave judgment in favour of the plaintiffs, who were awarded $50 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages (theUS Judgment).

The Singapore Enforcement Proceedings

Some five years later in July 2013, the plaintiffs commenced enforcement proceedings against the defendant in Singapore, solely in respect of the compensatory element of the US Judgment. The punitive element was dropped; punitive damages are not available under Singapore law. The defendant did not enter an appearance, and default judgment was entered against it (the Singapore Judgment). The plaintiff took immediate steps to enforce the Singapore Judgment which the defendant also failed to satisfy.

In September 2014, the plaintiffs applied for a garnishee order in relation to a Singaporean debtor of the defendant (KGJ). A garnishee order to show cause was granted against the Singapore debtor and the defendant entered an appearance in October 2014, after it was served with the order. The garnishee order was made absolute in December 2014 and KGJ paid a sum of $82,618 to the plaintiffs’ solicitors.

Following this, the defendant sought to set aside the Singapore Judgment and to strike out the plaintiffs’ statement of claim on the following grounds:

  1. based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens, the US Judgment should not be enforced because the alleged acts occurred in Cuba, the defendant company was registered in Curacao and the plaintiffs are Cuban; and
  2. the US Judgment should not be enforced because it awarded punitive damages to the plaintiffs.

Regarding the first argument, the Assistant Recorder who heard the set aside application at first instance, made clear that the forum non conveniens doctrine was an irrelevant consideration. The Singapore Judgment concerned only the enforcement of a foreign judgment which did not involve the commencement of fresh proceedings; therefore this argument was redundant as the issue had already been decided.

Regarding the second argument, the Assistant Recorder noted that the plaintiffs had not sought to enforce the order to pay punitive damages and that there was no authority to suggest that the entire US Judgment was tainted by the fact that it contained such an order. Additionally, the Assistant Recorder noted that the defendant’s failure to enter an appearance in the earlier enforcement proceedings, and the delay before filing its setting aside application, were also relevant factors to be taken into account. In light of this, the Assistant Recorder concluded that neither of the submissions raised triable issues that merited setting aside the Singapore Judgment.

The Singapore High Court’s Decision on Appeal

The defendant next applied to the Singapore High Court to set aside the Singapore Judgment. The appeal was dismissed.

In a brief judgment, the High Court agreed with the Assistant Recorder that the doctrine offorum non conveniens was irrelevant to the enforceability of foreign judgments. Apart from registration under the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments Act (Cap 264, 1985 Rev Ed), a foreign judgment may be enforced if it satisfies the legal requirements of the forum, subject to defences which may be raised by the defendant.

In order to set aside the Singapore Judgment, the defendant had to demonstrate that it had a triable case that either (i) the legal requirements of the forum were not met or (ii) a defence was applicable in the circumstances. The High Court also held that the fact that the US Judgment also included an order for punitive damages did prevent enforcement of the compensatory elements of the US Judgment.