CHICAGO (July 13, 2011)—The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal district court's rejection of a child labor lawsuit against Firestone Natural Rubber Co. L.L.C.
The appeals court also ruled, however, that the lower court erred in ruling that the plaintiff had no standing to sue under U.S. laws.
The International Labor Rights Fund sued Firestone in 2005 on behalf of 23 Liberian children. The lawsuit—which was later continued by the International Rights Advocates, an offshoot of the ILRF—claimed the company sanctioned child labor at its natural rubber plantation near Harbel, Liberia, and also kept workers in conditions and pay scales that amounted to slave labor.
The suit was filed under the authority of the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, and Firestone argued in the district court that corporations could not be sued under that statute. The district court agreed, and granted Firestone's motion for summary judgment.
In his July 11 decision, Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit ruled the lower court erred in accepting Firestone's argument. But the plaintiffs also did not establish that Firestone as a matter of policy was violating the rights of children who live on the plantation, he said.
“Conceivably, because the fathers of the children on the plantation are well-paid by Liberian standards, even the children who help their fathers with the work, are, on balance, better off than the average Liberian child,” Judge Posner wrote.
In a press release, Firestone said the appeals court decision proved the lawsuit was without merit. “Firestone Liberia has long been committed to its partnership with the Liberian people, and we have vigorously defended against the ILRF's false allegations,” the company said.
Terry Collingsworth, the attorney handling the Firestone Liberia case for the International Rights Advocates, said his organization was “90-percent delighted” with the Seventh Circuit decision.
“This is a case in which we won the war, but lost the battle,” Collingsworth said. The International Rights Advocates are still considering their options for an appeal, he said.