Federal appeals court rejects slavery reparations lawsuit

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] has upheld a lower court ruling [opinion, PDF] that defendants of slaves have no standing to sue companies that allegedly profited from slavery before the practice was abolished. In an opinion by Judge Richard Posner [official profile] Wednesday, the court ruled:

we think that the district court was correct, with some exceptions to be noted, in ruling that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue. It would be impossible by the methods of litigation to connect the defendants' alleged misconduct with the financial and emotional harm that the plaintiffs claim to have suffered as a result of that conduct. ...

... there is a fatal disconnect between the victims and the plaintiffs. When a person is wronged he can seek redress, and if he wins, his descendants may benefit, but the wrong to the ancestor is not a wrong to the descendants. For if it were, then (problems of proof to one side) statutes of limitations would be toothless. A person whose ancestor had been wronged a thousand years ago could sue on the ground that it was a continuing wrong and he is one of the victims. ....

But this causal chain is too long and has too many weak links for a court to be able to find that the defendants' conduct harmed the plaintiffs at all, let alone in an amount that could be estimated without the wildest speculation. It is impossible to determine how much, if any, less slavery there would have been had the defendants not done business with slaveowners, what effect a diminution of slavery would have had on bequests by ancestors of the class members, and how much of the value of those bequests would have trickled down to the class members.
The court did, however, reject the district court's ruling that barred the plaintiffs from making consumer protection claims that they unknowingly purchased goods and services from defendant companies that concealed their involvement with slavery. The Chicago Tribune has more.

In ten separate lawsuits consolidated in Chicago, the plaintiffs alleged that US companies such as Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, CSX Railroad, and Aetna [corporate websites] insured slaves and granted loans for their purchase and did not make their corporate involvement known until recently, preventing heirs of slaves from filing more timely claims. Last year, US District Judge Charles Norgle [official profile] dismissed [JURIST report] the consolidated cases, saying the statute of limitations had expired and that the plaintiffs would be unable to show that they were personally damaged by the actions of companies 150 years ago. The appeals court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in September.

 

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